How Anne Tyler and I are “Still Just Writing”

I wasn’t an author yet. I was a “studying English, hoping to write something someday” person, when Anne Tyler became iconic in my mind.

As a University of Pennsylvania student with a job in the library, I’d volunteer to go in search of “lost volumes.” Then I’d get lost in the stacks myself, browsing through fiction. A friend passed me a novel. In the poorly lit gloom, I opened the cover to Searching for Caleb, enjoyed that wondrous whiff of gluey dusty bookness, and sank into the words. At that very moment, Anne Tyler became one of my favorite authors.

This was before she “hit it big” with Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. Before they slapped her face on Barnes & Noble mugs and posters. Still, she had several novels on that library shelf, and more novels appeared every so often.

A few years later, I was amazed, therefore, to read her essay, “Still Just Writing.” In it, she described trying to shape a character in her head as she did countless everyday errands and ferried her children around to various sporting and social activities. It seemed like so much of her creative time was fractured by the mundane. It was endlessly frustrating. And while she sat on the bleachers attempting to somehow cling to an idea beginning to form in her brain, another mother was asking her if she was working anywhere or “still just writing.”

And now, these many years later, I find myself on the bleachers at swim meets, notebook in my lap, trying to marshal together plots, images, character.  I food shop and vacuum and cook and clean, my mind lost in writing land.  The hours consumed by “life” are endless.  Yet people think wow, you’re a full-time writer. How nice. All that time to write.  But so much more than those mundane tasks of life get in my way.

As an author, I’m also stuck doing a ton of promotion. Something I know Anne Tyler didn’t have to deal with back in the ‘80’s when the marketplace was very different. So this means that I spend valuable writing time doing things like setting up book signings, and creating and running workshops, and making conference appearances, and contacting press.  How many hours do I spend a week doing this?  If I have a busy promotion schedule, sometimes an entire week can be eaten up this way, and that’s not counting the full-days I might spend traveling to and being at the events.

And Anne was fortunate to start her career at a time when she could let her career grow book by book. With today’s economy, authors are pressured to have huge breakout numbers with their debut novel.  And if that doesn’t happen, authors must scramble to impress publishers and be VERY business-minded in everything they do. So, also cutting into my writing time are things like researching new markets, corresponding with my agent, responding to comments by interested editors, and tweaking and re-tweaking and RE-TWEAKING my latest manuscripts before I’m even under contract. It’s that competitive.

I also belong to a writer’s group, so I spend time reading and critiquing other manuscripts.  I belong to Romance Writer’s of America, and so I attend monthly meetings with those authors.  Obviously, I have my own website/blog, a facebook page, a twitter page, plus more!  And I keep up with what’s going on in the industry, reading daily news from, publisherslunch, and

Yet somehow I’ve managed to write two more novels in the past 3 years.  Because this is what I love most. Because once I start an idea I’m passionate about I’m compelled to finish it.  But with life getting ever busier, I’ve had to put my foot down to keep up with the writing.

So I’ve started doing a monthly Book in a Week challenge.  During that week, nothing else is as important as my writing. I keep up an away message, I turn off the Internet, and turn on the answering machine.  The world goes on without me, it seems, and the word count builds. It’s the most fun I have all month. Then, when the week is over, I play catch up with everything else.

Like Anne Tyler, I guess I’m still just writing, too.

*Cross posted on the Liars Club blog.