• Bridge Ladies

    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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Five Golden Rings

In 1991, as a newly minted editor  at Houghton Mifflin in my Ann Taylor suits, pearls and pumps, I acquired my first book of short stories, Naked to the Waist,  by a writer with the most alluring name, Alice Elliott Dark. The collection was followed by In the Gloaming, the title  story of which would be included in John Updike’s Best Short Stories  of the Century, and then the novel, Think of England. In addition to her brilliant writing, Alice is a beloved teacher, and she is antithetical to everything I believe to be true about writers. In other words, she’s caring, kind, and believes people can grow. Here’s her guest post:

I teach in an MFA program, which is for writers what waitressing is for actresses. (Yes, I insist on sticking to the woman version of these words.) It’s that job that seems a perfect complement to the central task of writing but is actually all consuming. I have learned over the years that it is fruitless to work on a novel during the semester; I cannot keep it all in my head, and I begin to doubt it. That’s when the trouble starts.

This semester I wrote a novella by not writing my novel. I wrote a story. I wrote a bunch of poems. I focused so intently on not writing my novel that I wrote lots of other stuff. I went to my office at the uni at seven-thirty and wrote for a few hours before anyone else rolled in. Ha! A simple plan, yet it worked. Kind of like giving up processed foods.

As soon as I finish grading exams, I will have three weeks. THREE WEEKS. This calls for a master plan—and I do have one. Here it is, step by step.

1) I wrote very detailed lists of everything I have to do before next semester begins, and how long it is going to take to do each task. I hung them on the bulletin board in my office and will next look at them on January 15th.

2) I made an agreement with my writing coach to work on two things and two things only during this time, three hours per day each.

3) I agreed to do yoga before I begin each writing sesh, and breathing exercises.

4) Instead of watching TV at night, I am going to read the books I will be teaching next semester. This is obviously the hardest commitment.

5) No Facebook. Or just a little Facebook.

6) Keep Aristotle’s Poetics at my elbow.

7) Plan the days around the blocks of writing time.

8) Go work at my office when my son is home.

9) No computer until I have a clean draft in pencil.

10) Focus on what I am not writing, so I can write. That seems to work.

How will I survive the actual friends n’ family moments? Work them into the other 18 hours of the day.

So, the question: what’s your plan?

32 Responses

  1. My plan is to have a plan by the second of January.

    To this end, I’m borrowing 2,4,5,7, and 10 and blocking out a schedule.

    Thank you Ms. Dark, for the inspiration and a place to start.

  2. 1. Get up when I wake up and sleep when I need to.
    2. No eating alone until I have lost 21 pounds.
    3. Take a kilometer walk and do stretches every morning.
    4. Do marketing (e.g., sending a story to a journal, reviewing a small press website, looking for an agent) every day.
    5. I have three somewhat large reading projects to finish over the next eight months.
    6. Continue writing every day. Currently I’m subjecting a longish piece to a major rewrite. I suspect I’ll have a draft done by the end of January.

  3. Since I’m starting from a dead stop, my plan is to

    1. Get in motion: daily word count.
    2. Research: little magazines that I might submit to.
    3. Start playing around with possible structures, themes for a memoir, or a book of memoiristic (Is that a word? Is now.) essays.
    4. Get off the computer and out of the house, and let the unmediated, unpixelated world fill my head with new impressions.
    5. Spend lots of time alone, mulling, mulling, mulling. Let the stuff at the bottom of the pot come bubbling up to the surface.

  4. Ms. Alice Elliott, thank you for the post. Your trick of writing by focusing on what you’re not writing sounds a lot like Stanford philosophy professor John Perry’s “Structured Procrastination,” winner of the 2011 IgNoble Prize for Literature. This essay has been a godsend and a solace to me. Perhaps you can relate also?


  5. 1. Schedule: 2 hours or 1,000 words like Bernadette Murphy says.
    2. More reading groups, writing centers, and sharing aloud.
    3. Polish this (memoir) bad boy.
    4. Leave the temptations temptations temptations alone.
    5. Submit like a heffa.

  6. i take Christmas break for two weeks and spend time with my family.

    1. Monday-Friday write for 2 hours in the am; read for 1 hour in the afternoon.
    2. Friday is for paperwork and mailings.
    3. exercise daily in the am (before i sit down to write).
    4. each Sept. and January, i review my writing strategic plan and adjust schedule for submission and grant deadlines, etc.

  7. I live by lists. But as I am going skiing with four loud adolescents and our place is tiny and freezing, it’s going to be hard to stick to my formula. Mostly I’ll be thinking about skiing better and cutting costs, and seeing their return to school/university as a gleaming mirage in the quiet of late January.

  8. Christmas is an impossible time for me to make hard and fast plans, but I have been mulling over how I can use my time better. Yoga was one of the things I felt I should fit in to my schedule. There was a time when nothing would stop my yoga moment and I definitely benefited from it, so in the new year it will make a return.
    Also to make time for reading, which sadly I don’t seem to do much any more. It’s always been a real pleasure for me to settle with a good book, but it hasn’t happened in months. Another one to add to the list.
    And to write every day. Something. Just something to keep the creative juices flowing.

  9. Every morning, come hell or high water, I sit down to write. That’s been my plan and it’s working out swimmingly.

    What I really want to know is what’s this thing called a writing coach and how much does she charge?

  10. Planning to plan, I sail instead, and ponder, then write.

  11. I peeked at your blog. I don’t know where that is on your list, but the December 15 post is damned good. I’m reading the your short story, Bold Type, this morning. As much as I miss Betsy you are an able writer.

  12. I’m a morning writer and on a good day I’m baked by mid-afternoon. I forgo TV in the evening, I read. Unless there’s something good on, which most times there isn’t. As much as I disgust friends and family, I love The Young and the Restless and Dancing with the Stars. I take time out for those.

    In January, I start a mentorship program with Humber College (Canada) which runs until August. My goal/plan is to have a revised draft of my novel manuscript worthy of submission to agents this fall.

    My writing program’s commencement coincides with my husband and dogs packing up and going to South Carolina, ahead of me, for the month of January. I go from Feb to March. I’m staying home to write and spend time with my daughter and soon-to-be-born grandson. (Oh that’s sounds so cool!) Screaming daughter or cooing baby, I plan to write in the mornings and be at their beck and call the rest of the day.

    I have a writing partner that keeps me honest. I also have a writer’s retreat with a select few planned in February at my rented place in South Carolina. And more writing (and a lot of eating and drinking) planned for March.

    Then it’s home for April. Stay focused, stay focused.

  13. 1: Refuse to exercise. Exercise just another reason to avoid heaving my sallow, flabby, pock-marked ass into the chair.
    2: Resent people with writing coaches.
    3: Resent people with day jobs.
    4: Doubt.
    5: Write.
    6: Lesbian S&M porn.
    7: Hate self for jerking off before noon. Now there’s nothing to look forward to.
    8: Delete everything I wrote at #5.
    9: Write.
    10: Vow to write more tomorrow.

  14. TP, I read the article. Yes, that is the method I stumbled on. Tricked myself by saying I couldn’t write during the semester, and was super productive.
    macdougalstreetbaby, a writing coach is a person who talks you down and through. mine has gotten me past a lot of difficulties i didn’t used to have, back to where i came from, really. i guess the cost varies, but it is worth it to me to spend the money. i speak to him via skype every two weeks, we plan, i make all my excuses and then clear them away.

    • So is a writing coach very different from a reader/editor? It sounds as if he’s a quasi-therapist who mainly deals with the mental and emotional challenges of the writing life. Am I right?

  15. In the Gloaming just knocked me out. Thank you, Ms. Dark, for that marvelous story and for your excellent list.
    My list:
    I will dedicate two hours each day to revising novel #1.
    I will make notes for novel #2, in progress.
    I will post twice a week on my blog to keep the writing muscle flexed.
    I will spend (hmmm, this one’s hard) a maximum of 30 minutes each day on Facebook and email.
    I can’t go cold turkey on the no TV, but I will cut down. (Sort of “portion control.”)
    I will read for at least one hour each day.
    I will keep moving — walk the dogs, swim, dance.
    I will let my husband do the dishes 🙂

  16. The fourth draft of my memoir is nearly completed. I need to edit, rewrite, rearrange, change and condense all the words I’ve commited and recommitted to paper. I carry my manuscript with me to work and when I have time I work on it, but the holidays are a busy time here and the interruptions are not welcome but are necessary to the job. I mean, I have to make money for presents and fruitcake ingredients and bills, not necessarily in that order (presents take precedence). That is my goal at least. I am good at making plans but the follow through needs work.

  17. August, I am trying to learn to resent in therapy; it doesn’t come naturally. I watched one porn movie decades ago, The Devil in Miss Jones, and have never again looked at it. Since it is Christmastime, I accept your resentment as a present. Thanks.

    • That resentment doesn’t come naturally to you is fascinating. I always believed that was a universal trait. I can’t help but to wonder what your parents were like.

    • I can’t imagine a life without resentment. How about shame and rage and self-loathing?

      And here, this is a better present than my resentment, which I give away free to everyone who’s more successful than I: http://averildean.wordpress.com/erotic-stories/

      • Pimped! We need 70s porn music to carry the theme along. Boom chicka wah wah. . . .

        My plan is to finish the fucker (takes on a new and uncomfortable meaning in this context, yeah?) before that dude in the white polyester starts shaking me down. You see how he is.


      • Remember when they used to be called “porno” movies? It’s like that syllable was another veil of innocence dropped, back in the days of plain brown wrappers and pulling up your coat lapel to hide your face before entering the adult video store.

  18. I just finished what I hope to God will be the final draft of The Novel. I don’t want to think of how long it’s taken me to finish it. So for the next 2 weeks it’s, in no particular order :
    1) Sleep in for a change. Maybe even to 7 am !
    2) Long leisurely breakfasts, read digital newspapers and lurk random blogs
    3) Stay up late watching In Treatment Season 1 with my wife, which I bought for her for Christmas but really bought for myself. Maybe Sopranos which I got for last Christmas but haven’t cracked open yet. Likely Lord of the Rings again with my kids.
    4) Read all the books that have been piling up – I’m good at buying them but never have time to read them
    5) Try not to pester my wife while she reads through the draft – she’s always the first reader before my agent
    6) Try not to look at the manuscript again, it’s like picking a scab, leave it alone goddammit
    7) Start mapping out the new book I’ve been fantasizing about for months while finishing this one
    8) Drink some good wine
    9) Drink some good scotch
    10) Drink some good beer

  19. A writing coach! I’ve told myself that’s just another crutch – that if I really wanted to write, I’d just do it. You mean real, published, well-regarded writer’s can use one? Where do I find a good one?


    • Yeah, I swallowed the War of Art kool-aid also, but I couldn’t tough it out and so just felt worse about not writing. But the essence of that book is that you do what it takes to write, not try to prove that you don’t need any help.

  20. Betsy,
    This was exactly what I needed to read this morning.
    The first thing I need to do is to make a list. I’m still at that stage where I start thinking about the books I have to read for teaching, the books I’m under deadline to review, the articles I’m under deadline to write, the novel I’m trying to revise, and the fact that I’m driving a thousand miles on Friday to spend the holidays with family, and the next thing I know, I’m reading articles on The Guardian or cruising Facebook.
    So, First. Go make a list of everything that needs to get done before January 19.
    Second. Try not to panic.

  21. Thank you Ms. Dark for your orderly example and your beautiful writing.

    I plan to finish the first draft of my WIP by mid March, send out query letters for the first, start submitting to indy presses, (further investigate the interest I already have from one) and only blog every other week in the new year.

  22. My plan is to sit down at my computer for 20 minutes. It’s easy to find 20 minutes, easier than two hours. It’s also about how long I can concentrate. If I then just stare at the screen it’s only 20 minutes. It’s hard to completely fuck something up in 20 minutes. If I write shit, there’s another 20 minutes waiting for me somewhere soon. If I get going and go longer yayayay!

  23. Sitting on the patio under the Florida sun. Working on my novel as time permits. I am writing with my wife’s laptop. My address was wscrivnor; hers is wscrivnor@charter.net.
    Finished your Trees book. You forgot to list my problem. I’m terribly lazy. I always finish but it takes me forever to get there.
    How do I write to you without this blog?


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