Christina Baker Kline is that rarest of writer-friends who, whether connecting over coffee or at a writer-centric event, or via email or telephone, always asks about my work, my challenges, how she can help. (And she'll even write something for a friend's blog while in England with her family – how's that for supportive?) Her guest post coincides with the publication this week of Christina's new novel, Bird in Hand, which I devoured this past week. [Note- we are giving away a copy of the book, see below.]
Christina is the author of three other novels, the editor of several essay collections, the Writer-in-Residence at Fordham University, and a sought-after freelance editor. She's also a backbone of the flourishing writing community in the northern New Jersey area where we both live, and someone whose craft, professionalism, and joyful demeanor I admire.
Please welcome Christina Baker Kline.
Five Life Lessons I Learned Writing my New Novel, Bird in Hand
1. I am not a model. Or a professional soccer player.
At times, over the eight long years it took to finish Bird in Hand, I was seized with panic. Look at all those fresh-faced young writers madly producing books, while I grow wrinkled and gray! But then I realized: it doesn’t matter how damn old I am. Unlike some professions, writing does not require that you have dewy skin or the speed of an antelope. All that matters are the words on the page. So when I got into a panic about my work, I reminded myself that life is long; some of my favorite writers have done their best work in their seventies and eighties. And not only that, but …
2. Older really is wiser, at least in some ways.
Climbing up and over the hill of middle age, I’ve learned that some of the positive clichés about aging really are true. I trust my first impulses more. I’m more confident about what I know for sure. I believe that I can write a decent sentence. I care much less than I used to about what people think. I understand my own process. Which leads me to …
3. What works for me is what matters.
Writers are always asked about their work habits because it’s endlessly fascinating (even to other writers). Do you write in the morning or the afternoon? Do you work on a laptop or with a ballpoint pen? Do you sit in a basement, like John Cheever, or an austere sliver of a room, like Roxana Robinson? Do you work for two hours or ten?
But here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter what anyone else’s process is. What matters is what works for me. For example – unlike most other novelists I know, I’m not a morning person. My best writing time may be mid-to-late afternoon. Writing Bird in Hand, I often worked in a generic Panera Bread Shop in a different town, on subways, and in dentists’ offices. I also wrote the first drafts longhand, which few seem to do anymore. Maybe I could train myself to write first drafts on the keyboard, but why should I? This is what works for me.
And that’s my point. I’m still intrigued by how other people work, but I also know that writing is a strange alchemical business, and I need to follow my own impulses. Whatever it takes to get the words on the page is what I need to do. And I also need to remember that …
4. My life feeds my work.
For a long time my “real” life and my writing life seemed like two separate states, and when I was in one I felt guilty about neglecting the other. I’ve come to understand that time away from writing nourishes my creativity; time immersed in the creative process allows me to inhabit my personal life with less conflict and more serenity. All the bits and pieces of my life experience feed my writing in ways I don’t even realize until they’re on the page. I drew on this in Bird in Hand by writing about the minutiae of childrearing, "…endless bland kid dinners, fish sticks and chicken nuggets and macaroni and cheese and Classico sauce with spaghetti, on a revolving loop." At the same time, though …
5. Contrary to popular opinion, quality time is as important as quantity time.
In the final few months writing Bird in Hand, I went around in a perpetually foggy state, and I often felt guilty about my lack of focus. What I came to realize is that my kids – who are 9, 13, and 14 – like having me around, but they don’t always require my undivided attention. Being there when they got home from school in the afternoon, having conversations in the car, family dinners, weekend excursions, cooking together, and the occasional board game made up for a lot of times when I might have been physically present but mentally in a different time zone.
Knowing that there were plenty of times when I'd drop everything and focus on the moment – quality time, that is -- my kids were happy to let me work when I had to. And they began taking themselves off to do their own work, too. The oldest one writes and records music. My second child plays piano for hours. And the younger one is currently obsessed with Harry Potter. Some of the best moments are when I feel the household humming with activity – mine and theirs.
[We are giving away a copy of Bird in Hand in a random drawing. To enter, leave a comment between now and August 24. Be sure to include a way for us to get in touch if you win – an email address or a website/blog URL which has a contact method]
Also, over at Christina's blog, dedicated to craft, inspiration, process, and other aspects of writing and publishing a novel, she'll be discussing Bird in Hand over the next few weeks.
Great insights, Christina. Love #3.
I really like #1 and #2. And then #5 is so important... it's a balancing act, isn't it? The tough part is learning how to refocus after interruptions.
Thanks for the interesting guest bloggers you provide. This is great.
And it's always encouraging to read writers who are a bit older...we still can write!!!
Sounds like the biggest lesson is the futility of guilt. We heap it on ourselves over so many relatively trivial things, and as we gain maturity, we start to see that triviality for what it is. Bravo!
Great list! I really identified with #5, although with a four year-old, it's harder to check out mentally for extended periods of time.
I'd love to read Christina's novel! Please enter me in the drawing.
Writing the Renaissance
Great piece -- enjoyed it immensely. (My little one eats just like you describe.)
Am eager to read this book; crossing my fingers. :)
bookwormLD --at-- gmail.com
Thanks for the insight! #3 in particular was a great piece of advice.
Teaching the children on how to write could really be challenging, yet it is very rewarding when you see them writing on their own.
Am I the only reader who has to re-learn #4- my life feeds my work--over and over and over?
Thanks for reminding me. I needed to hear it again
It's refreshing to read this... and realize that I'm not alone. And in particular, too many of us try to re-create another writers secret to success. We need to do what works for us - that's what works best. For me, it's actually different all the time. The more I change up my routine, the better my writing.
kipdurney at gmail dot com
Love #1. Cause it doesn't matter how damn old I am, I'll always love reading a good romance story!
Love the segues in your list! I especially enjoyed some of those phrases and realizations in #1 and #2.
Between #1 and Doris Lessing Winning the Nobel Prize in Literature at 87, I think there may be hope for me yet. I look forward to reading your novel (even if I don't win it!)
2kopeople @ gmail dot com
Forgot to include my contact info for the drawing when I commented:
My son picked the winner at random, and it's Laura! Congrats.
Lisa, I have been away and just read the blog by Christine - love it. Love what BOTH of you are doing with your blogs. You are both sharing good information. Just reading Christine's "tips" made me slow down this morning as I was writing the novel that has me in its embrace. (Note I did not say "claws!") Many thanks. And good luck to you with your new teaching gig this fall. Julie Maloney
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