Either write, or don’t write.
~A special letter from Story Intensive teacher Sonal Champsee~
When I last taught The Story Intensive, my house was under renovation. I lived surrounded by broken plaster, rusted wire, and mud. I was also going through multiple rounds of back-to-back IVF cycles, which meant unpredictable but frequent appointments for blood tests, ultrasounds, more medications, minor surgery, and major emotional decisions being made on minimal information. I was also trying to complete the first draft of my MFA thesis, a novel. And I was trying to support my husband and father-in-law when my mother-in-law’s cancer came back, taking her in and out of the hospital, where she eventually died, and then took on keeping track of the funeral arrangements and the initial administrative details. (Death comes with a lot of paperwork.)
I think it gets very easy in busy times to decide “Writing is not a priority” and let it go. And it is true that writing is not a death in the family. But in crisis times, you do need to take care of yourself or else you burn out, and for me, that was writing.
There’s an expression I like, which is that busy people get things done. When you are busy, when every day comes with a new crisis upending every plan you had, you do not have time to be perfect. You do not have time to be precious. You only have time to get done what you can and let everything else go. So, going to a coffeeshop to get my writing donut and settle in for a few hours? Wasn’t going to happen. Sitting at my desk with a fresh cup of tea and turning off my email and cell phone and then chanting mantras to the muse? Not possible. Spending an hour browsing the internet trying to pin down the exact perfect name for my main character? No time. It was either write, or don’t write.
That said, I didn’t write every day. (I’m not an every day writer at the best of times.) There were definitely a lot of days where my mental energy didn’t allow me to do more than eat cookies and watch bad reality TV. But that’s fine. Don’t waste the mental energy beating yourself up for not writing. If you sit down to write, and after a short stretch of time it's not happening, stop. If you’re not going to write, not-write with gusto.
My thesis draft was due the same week as my mother-in-law’s funeral, which was during the first weeks of the Story Intensive, which was when landscapers showed up to finish the work, and I was arguing with IVF doctors over my treatment path. Sure, I wanted to make writing a priority, but finishing the draft was not going to happen, so I delayed it. I had a clear list in my head: my husband and father-in-law first, medical second, writing and teaching third, everything else after. We ate a lot of take-out and the house never really got cleaned. We lived with holes in the walls and floors.
I told my thesis advisor that I was going to need to delay, and also my Story Intensive students what was going on. Telling people took the pressure off trying to keep up the appearance that everything was fine, and also let me negotiate adjustments. I have had past students in the Intensive who have had significant personal issues that made it difficult for them to complete the work, and when they talked to me about it, we were able to work out alternate deadlines, discuss which exercises take longer, which could be circled back to later, which would be built upon for future lessons, etc.
I am a terrible delegator, but any problem that came up that wasn’t a priority and couldn’t be put off just had to be handled by someone else. This meant that maybe it was not handled well, and that was just something I had to accept.
My smartphone became my lifeline. I read and commented on student work whenever I had a chance. I made novel notes for my thesis draft. I emailed my doctors. I texted my contractors. I messaged friends to rant and vent so that I could get every inappropriate thought out of my system before it festered. My husband was in no position to be leaned on, so I leaned on everyone else.
When I finally handed it in, my thesis draft was not remotely what I hoped it would be. But it was done. My husband and I agreed that we were probably going to be crappy partners to each other for a while, but that was fine. I was not much of a friend to anyone, since I only had room in my brain for talking about funerals, writing or infertility. My friends were okay with that. I had no writing routine, but I wrote anyway. I had to adjust all of my expectations on myself for the circumstances at the time.
I am very deadline-driven and the Story Intensive made sure I had deadlines. It made sure I was reading work critically so that I could use my writing brain. For me, it was a reprieve from the demands of everything else around me.
— Sonal Champsee, Story Intensive Teacher