Monday, August 23, 2010

Wise words about not producing enough words

Once, writer Richard Hoffman, whose two workshops during my MFA program triggered a big surge in my craft, counseled me this way, when my father was dying and I was worried that my writing output was declining: "Life first, writing second."

I took his advice then, put down my pen and my overly rigid expectations of myself for a few weeks. I came through the other side, ready to produce new writing again, richer I think than if I had forced myself to keep to a normal schedule.

Now, I find myself coming back to Richard's advice again. I've been across the country for two weeks at my mother's hospital bedside, and I've been struggling (but managing) to keep up with my students and teaching obligations, and to turn in contracted, assigned writing projects. But I've also been struggling, and not managing, to continue to produce a thousand or so words a day for new memoir and essay pieces.

Richard's words come back to me and I have to remind myself of their wisdom and the gift of freedom they gave me four years ago. I may be absent from my usual output (and from the blog) for a while longer, but I have come to realize that unless I take on Life first, writing second – then what would I, as a nonfiction memoir and personal essay writer, have to write about anyway? Unless I attend to life as it unfolds, what could I possibly have to say that might matter to anyone else's life?

While I'm still away (in several ways), I invite you to skip through the blog archives, especially to the posts where I've passed on more of Richard's wise words about writing here and here. In comments, maybe you can also share your own ideas and experiences about how you manage, or don't manage, to write while in the middle of personal crises.


Maria Clara Paulino said...

Dear Lisa - What a great teacher you had. Yes, put life first, always; it comes first anyway. All the best, Clara

Lisa McKay said...

I'm also vulnerable to this self-induced pressure and need to be reminded of this on a regular basis. I think the answer during crises and times of family need is clear-cut. Absolutely, life first, writing second. Where I struggle more is during times of great stress and change. I've just come off seven years as a stress management trainer for aid workers, which meant lots of travel. My husband and I moved to Laos eight weeks ago... I'm working on putting myself on a schedule, but it's a tough balance to strike sometimes. I hope your time with your family is reach and meaningful. All the best, Lisa

Lisa McKay said...

Uh, that was supposed to be "rich and meaningful". One of these days I'll learn to re-read comments BEFORE I post them.

Mary Day Long said...

My mother was a writer, and a storyteller. During times of stress and crisis, she'd sigh and say, "Well, it's all material."

It took me years to get the multiple levels of meaning in that one! In those years, I've found it to be a useful corollary to great advice like "Life first, writing second."

Good luck to you in your stressful time, and don't worry too much about being productive. You will be.

Jenny said...

Lisa, I'm sorry to hear about your mom. In this day and age with so many distractions, it's hard to be present, but so important. Glad you are.