Letter From The Editor - Issue 68 - April 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
March 2013

Closing the Door

Trying to build a career as a writer while working at home with five children, it was essential for me to have an office with a door I could close. Better still, my office has always been in the basement, which means it takes at least some effort to find me, not to mention some time. I was away from the noise which children between the ages of six and sixteen can create when left to themselves, but not so far from the noise that I couldn't hear screams of real pain or calls for help. To me, in addition to being a useful strategy for the practicalities of the writing life, the door closed is also a wonderful metaphor for the writing life. It is important to keep our connections to the world around us. It also important to make sure that we set certain boundaries to get our work done.

In my real life, I hear friends who complain that they cannot write unless they have absolute quiet, or unless they have three or four hours to get into the mood for writing, to complete whole scenes and chapters. This is not how I have worked for most of my life as a writer. I began working on my first novel when I was pregnant with my oldest daughter (who is now nineteen). I worked every day for 30 minutes as I was also trying to finish my dissertation for my PhD. After my daughter was born and my PhD had been defended, I was working part-time at a local university and pregnant again. Again, my writing was worked into the cracks and crannies in my schedule, generally during naptime, or in the wee hours of the morning before anyone else was awake, occasionally on the weekends if my husband was home and took my daughter on an outing for just the two of them. But always, in the office.

Since they were very small, I have taught my children what the closed door to my office means: "Mommy is writing." Writing is important work, and it deserves its own space. I don't invite my children into my office to sit on my lap and talk to me. I don't invite them in to play games or to watch something on my computer screen that has amused me. My office is a place for work, and my children know that when I am finished with my writing, I come out of my office. When I am out of my office, they are free to tell me about errands they need run or items that I forgot to purchase. They can tell me about problems with the laundry and about the peanut butter that has run out. But not while I am in my office.

My children have also been trained to know that if they open the door to my office while I am still working, I will politely answer a simple question like "Can I go to a friend's house?" or "Can I have some peanut butter?" with a simple answer. That is all. I may offer a brief, distracted smile. Or I may not. Because I will go immediately back to my work, which they have interrupted. And when I look away, they are expected to close the door again, and go back upstairs until I am finished. The door isn't locked. I don't expect a life with five children to be without interruptions. I don't even want it to be. I had children because I love connecting with children. But I also set boundaries and this door is one of them. If there is an emergency, I will respond immediately, but otherwise, they are to close the door after they have opened it.

The closed-but-not-locked-door is a metaphor that it speaks to setting boundaries in all parts of life, not just in writing. I suspect that many men unconsciously set boundaries, but that many women do not know how to set boundaries or how to keep them in place. Women who work in or outside the home tend to have difficulty with closing a door and keeping it closed. Even if they have a door, they tend to leave the door open (either figuratively or literally) and feel that it is rude to close it, to demand space or time to themselves.

Setting boundaries as a writer is a vital part of approaching it as a career and training your family and friends to react to writing time appropriately. My children sometimes whined at me early on in my life as a writer. They would beg me to come read a book or take them to the park. I hope you do not automatically assume that I was a bad mother when I tell you that I ignored these complaints. I spent hours reading aloud to my children, so much that on occasion, I made myself hoarse. I went to the library on a weekly basis and took my children outside to play every day. But not during my writing time. Not when the door to my office was closed.

When I hear other women in particular complain that their children simply do not allow them to have time to themselves or that their family life means that they cannot write because of all the interruptions, I shake my head. It isn't usually your family who is refusing to accept your choice to be a writer, I think. It is you who are not setting the boundaries and holding to it. It is you who opens the door when it should be closed. It is you who is being distracted when there is no emergency behind the door.

Writers write. This is a simple truism.

Writers don't necessarily spend time at conferences. Writers don't necessarily read books about writing. Writers don't necessarily chat on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr or Pinterest. Writers don't need to have a great website.

If you are a writer, you will find a way to write. Some people may find it easier to write than others. Women in particular may find it more difficult to write. But that doesn't mean it isn't possible. You don't need a fancy computer. You don't really need a computer at all, at least not in the beginning stages of your work. All you need is a paper and pen and your imagination. And you need a way to close the door to the part of your mind that is constantly thinking up things to worry about, lists of things that are not done, a picture of the living room that needs to be vacuumed, or all the things that would be easier to do than write.

I have an office and I love my office with its physical door, but there are ways to create a metaphorical door that is just as effective. It is your decision, to say that this is your time and your space, wherever you choose. It does not even have to be the same place and time every day.

You can write when you take your kids to the park. You can write when you are waiting for kids to finish a piano lesson or a soccer practice. You can write in your own bedroom or the bathroom, if that is what it takes. You can write while taking a bath. You can write when you are out walking for exercise. You can write on the way into work on the train. You can write while you are in treatment for cancer. You can write when you are too sick to go to work, but not so sick that you can't sit up and hold a pen.

It isn't other people who are stopping you from writing. You are making your own choice whether or not to be a writer. And while I have no problem with people deciding that now is not the best time in their lives for a writing career, it is a choice. It isn't what is forced upon you. You are choosing to keep the door open, rather than to close it.

You open the door to your writing life when you say "yes" to everything that other people ask you to do. Volunteering at your child's school, for instance. Or getting lunch with old friends. Going shopping for clothes. Doing dishes and laundry when kids are not home.

You open the door to your writing life when you let society tell you what you should be doing -- putting on makeup and doing your hair, losing weight, keeping your house clean, working on home improvement projects that make your house look nicer or become more valuable, but don't help give you writing time.

You open your door every time that you decide that something else matters more than your writing. Maybe something else does matter more than your writing. If your father is dying, that might be a very wise choice. There is a reason that I say that the door should be closed, but not locked. There are emergencies that happen. But don't mistake your hand on the doorknob opening the door for someone else breaking into your writing space.

I have a friend who does all of her writing on the kitchen table. She works as her kids get ready to go to school. She chats with them now and again as she ruminates over the right line. (She is a picture book writer.) When the kids are gone, she does more intense work. And when they come home again, she is at work on her laptop as her kids do their homework. Does she have an open door or a closed one? It is all in her mind, and it works for her.

I think that for some people, it is easier to block out distractions physically than it is to do it mentally. It is useful as a writer if you know the kind of person you are. If you need to have absolute silence to write, you may need to go to a library instead of staying at home. You may need to buy ear plugs to work if your children are at home. You may need to turn off the telephone, refuse to answer the front door, warn people that you will not go out with friends, that you are busy, that you are at work.

But if you are writing, be aware of the door that you must close to keep your focus, even if it is only an imaginary one. Set your own rules, and don't break them except for emergencies. If you want to be a writer, write. Don't play on-line games when you have writing time. Don't hang around on Facebook during writing time.

When you break your own rules, you are opening that door and you are telling everyone else that you aren't serious about your writing, that you don't really expect them to stay out, to obey the metaphor of your closed door. You are inviting people into your office and asking them to distract you.

I know why you do it. Believe me I do. Because writing is hard. It's easier to leave the door open and let yourself be distracted by whoever wanders by. But doing what is easy is not going to end with a completed novel.

I will say here as well that I think it becomes a problem if you are a writer with a family and you keep your door closed all the time. I can sometimes get too focused on a project and lose all sense of time. If you are like that, you may need to set a timer with an alarm to remind you to come up for air. It is possible to become too wrapped up in your writing to have a real life. And I believe that writing suffers because of that. For all I talk about closing the door, it can get claustrophobic in there. People need a balance of work and play. They need other people. And writers are people, too.

So do your work when the door is closed. Do it the best you can. Then when you have completed the hours you have set out to complete, open the door. Step out of the writing cave and let yourself forget. You don't have to consciously think about writing all the time in order for your subconscious mind to be at work at it. You can open the door again the next day and you will be surprised that problems have found answers without you thinking about it consciously.

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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