by Julie Kingsley
Back in college, I had a professor who railed on the notion that the writing was about sacrifice. I recall him yelling, “If you want to be an effective working writer you will say no to dinner with friends, that day at the beach, the trip to the mall. Instead, you need to commit to the process. Keep your butt in the chair! Do the work!” This is not uncommon. Most of us have heard this advice at conferences, books on craft, or even writing podcasts. I’m starting to think that this short-sighted way of looking at our complex writing lives.
I’ve been pondering the genius Ernest Hemingway lately, especially his life in Key West. I love how he’d stumble out of bed each morning at the crack of dawn, no doubt hungover, past his army of six-toed cats, and head across the small bridge he’d built from his house to his writing studio. There he’d systematically write his daily 500 (yes, butt in chair!), before he’d go live again, be it hosting boxing matches in his backyard, or heading back to Sloppy Joe’s for more rum, or tackling the blue marlin out at sea.
He has a famous quote, “Live the full life of the mind, exhilarated by new ideas, intoxicated by romance of the unusual.” But, how to achieve that is always the question. I believe, like Hemingway, writers need to walk the delicate balance between devotion to the craft, and going out there and living life. With that in mind, I encourage you to really look at your work/life balance. Is it serving your craft? Do you fuel the fire of your writing spark? Do activate your brain through new experiences?
I decided to Hemingway my last month of writing, to live in the “romance of the unusual,” and here are my favorite tips:
- Go to the fish market and buy the smelts*. They are small and they’ll have eyeballs, gut them (I made my husband do this), dip them in egg and seasoned panko, and fry them in a pan. Serve them with caper mayo that you make with simply mayo and capers. Then eat them right out of the pan with your fingers. This is best if you do it with friends, with wine. Then write about the experience, how that little fish felt in your hand, how you ate around the tiny bones, how delicate the entire experience was… it’ll remind you to slow down your writing, to get the fine details on the paper.
* (Smelts are caught in New England in winter by cutting holes in the ice in the saltwater mouths of rivers. They are amazingly inexpensive at $3.99 a pound. For best results buy fresh! If you can’t find smelts, try something different and interesting!).
- Go to the top of the mountain and ski something that scares you (Make sure that you can ski before doing this!). Then dip down that crazy little path, through the perfectly coated Christmas tree forest, to the top of a black diamond run. Look down the mountain to the sea of moguls, little and large bumps of snow, and find your way down. Pay attention to how you feel in this heightened sense of danger (I think I had a little bit of a manic laugh and despite the cold my palms were sweating). Then just go. Live in the fear and exhilaration. When you can barely stand it, decide to cut through the trees until you come to another trail entirely, and see where that takes you. Then write about the feel of the danger, and the sense of calm you achieve when the trail finally comes to the end.
- This one might be the simplest, yet the toughest of all, and I have to say it wasn’t something that I’d consciously put into the universe, but simply came to me. This month I’ve had three adults reach out and say, “I’d like to be your friend.” Like, not my Facebook/Twitter friend, but an actual face-to-face friend, with tea, or dinner, or even a walk. One, how direct and socially badass. Two, I already feel myself learning and growing from these individuals. I’m better to have met them! This feeling of discovery converts directly to fiction. You need to peel away at the onion of friendship in most books. Practice it! Write it!
In the end, we all need to find that perfect counter-balance between being committed to the craft, for doing our due-diligence when it comes to educating ourselves around our work, and then having the bravery to put ourselves through the querying process, but we also need to be doing the everyday business of living! So my advice to you is do it all. Being a writer is the best.