Stopping Long Enough to Sit Down and Write

By Lorraine Ali

Categories: Alum Experiences, Women's Voices, Writing Tips,

I’ve been trying to finish a memoir for a couple years now, but ever since I landed a book deal I’ve somehow become the human equivalent of a magpie. Every single task, aside from writing The Book, is now a like a shiny lure that I need to pursue with gusto.

Don’t get me wrong — I do have somewhat of an excuse.  Life is packed with must dos, (work, the kid, the bi-annual vacuuming of the living room rug) and it takes up a great deal of energy. I’m also a journalist who writes for a living, so the last thing I want to do when I get home from work is, well . . . you get the idea. But not so long ago I found myself filling up every bit of free time engrossed in some sort of entirely unimportant busy work. After all, who else is going to re-grout the bathroom or de-pill that old wool jacket I haven’t worn in three years? I’d justify these mind-numbing pursuits (it gives me intellectual free time to incubate brilliant ideas for the book!) or curse the task itself for standing between me and literary greatness. Either way, I had something to tell myself as I dodged blown book deadlines like deadly IEDs.

But a couple summers ago, I was given the opportunity to live distraction-free for two weeks at Hedgebrook. The hope was I would work on my book, which is a memoir about reuniting with the Iraqi half of my family in the fallout of war. It’s an intense subject that often leaves me wondering why I didn’t pitch “Britney’s Hottest Hair Tips” to publishers instead. At Hedgebrook, they cooked for me, cleaned for me, and provided surrounds so quiet that even my worn molars ground to a halt. There was absolutely nothing I had to do while tucked away in the lush green woods of Whidbey Island but write—and it was terrifying.

The first few days I tried to keep busy: I gathered up wood for my cabin (it was August—didn’t need it), fed apples to the llamas across the street (they weren’t  interested) and loitered in the farm house under the guise of doing “computer research” (I was trolling Zappos for shoes.) But the other writers at the retreat inspired me each night at the communal dinner table by talking about what they were working on, or having trouble with, or hoping to tackle before they left. By the time I finally focused and sat myself in front of my computer, it was day four. Slowly, I began allowing myself to relax enough to actually think about the ultimate task at hand—writing my book. Scary as it was, it made me realize that writing was not just about discipline, it’s also about believing that what you’re doing is important enough to stop everything else. It’s essentially the whole idea behind Hedgebrook. The Hedgebrook staff—from Amy to Kathy to Vito to Denise—provided support while I struggled with the idea of letting go long enough to write something that wasn’t a short magazine or newspaper article.

By the time I left two weeks later, I had finished a chapter. I know, it doesn’t sound like much—but to me, it was huge. Essentially, I learned that the goods are there if I allow myself the space and time to access them. I’m not saying that I’m now an intensely prolific author, or that I’ve stopped pursuing my writerly procrastinations (I recently painted the mailbox) but I am close to done with the book. So, thank you Hedgebrook for making me stop long enough to sit down and write.

3 Comments

  • Amy Wheeler
    5:45 PM - 19 June, 2011

    Oh my gosh, Lorraine, we share a passion for exactly the same diversions! Picking the little ‘pills’ off of old sweaters is a favorite procrastination pasttime..it’s amazing what demands to get done when it’s time to write. I wrote an entire scene of a play where every object in the room came to life and cried out for my attention as I tried to make my way to the desk. Your post had me laughing out loud…and empathizing like mad.

  • Lesley McClurg
    6:54 PM - 20 June, 2011

    Ditto to Amy’s words. Thank you both for letting me know I’m not the only one strangely allured to clean out the fridge (for the third time this year) when its time to sit down and put words on paper.

  • Mary Tang
    11:54 PM - 25 June, 2011

    Thank you for sharing –I am the slowest writer of them all but now I do not beat myself up for it. Hedgebrook has given me faith in myself, and if it takes the rest of my life, I will keep working on finishing my memoir.

    My favourite distraction from writing is editing. No matter how many times I re-read the first chapter, there are always changes I can make to it. LOL

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