Day 5 of #1000wordsofsummer 2020

Claim your words.

Hi friends,

Today you will write 1000 words. Because there is something you want to claim for yourself by doing this. It is not necessarily a particularly tangible thing. A sense of accomplishment. An expression of an artistic vision. A giant exhale of emotions. All these things are felt, nuanced. They are intimate and personal. But they are necessary. And only you can claim yours.

Our guest contributor today is Courtney Sullivan, the New York Times bestselling author of the novels Commencement, Maine, The Engagements and Saints For All Occasions. Her fifth book, Friends and Strangers, will be out June 30th.

“If you are reading this—whether you’ve published ten books or two books or no books—you are a writer. Which means you are probably highly sensitive and possess the sort of intense empathy that might make it impossible to push the world away and get to work in dark times like these.

Don’t push the world away. Be in it. The world needs people like you. There will be days to write gorgeous prose and days when it is enough just to keep your story alive. Maybe you write a thousand crappy words today, but they are the map that leads you to the good stuff.

For the first six months of my son’s life, we had no childcare. I had in my head the idea for a novel about a new mother and the college-aged babysitter she hires. I couldn’t manage to write actual scenes. But almost every day, and in the middle of the night, I sent myself emails from my phone with the subject line: Babysitter. They contained observations, ideas, bits of dialogue that arose for the book I had no time to write. After six months, when I started writing that book in earnest, the first thing I did was search my inbox for the word Babysitter and there they were—all the glorious breadcrumbs I’d left for myself.

This might be a breadcrumb moment for you. It is for me. I feel wrung-out. Heartsick. I am glued to the news and Twitter. I saw a photograph online of George Floyd as a toddler in his mother’s lap, and I can’t get the image out of my mind.

My son is a month shy of three now. My daughter is eighteen months old. Thanks to Covid-19, my husband and I are in our thirteenth week without childcare. Our children say the words ‘I want’ four thousand times a day. It is our job to fulfill these wants. Or deny them and face their toddler wrath. (As in our current stalemate over how many popsicles one small person should be allowed to eat before noon.)  

Solitude is essential for many of us writers, and if we live with other people, it’s precisely what our lives lack now. I wrote my first two novels while I had a full-time day job. I wrote them late at night. I still get my best work done between eleven p.m. and two a.m. I think most writers with other jobs and/or young children write while everyone else is asleep. There are those who work the early shift and those, like me, who stay up late. The only real writing I’ve done since March 13th has happened after midnight.  

When you do sit down to write, whether you have an hour or all day, make a brief but meaningful transition in your body and your brain. Slow down. Hide your phone. Take three long deep breaths. Read poetry for a few minutes. Or spend a few minutes copying the style of Joe Brainard’s gorgeous memoir, I Remember, in which the author starts every sentence with the two words in the title. See where that takes you.

A writer’s time is precious. You know what none of us has the time for right now? Self-doubt. Two years ago this month, I was teaching a workshop and my students and I made a pact. It would be the Summer of No Angst. Meaning we would waste no time doubting our talent, our originality, our work. We would not wonder if this thing we were writing might hurt someone’s feelings or if it might be better to try and sound like that other writer, whom everyone seemed to adore. No. We would simply plow ahead. We would not try to become enlightened or to love every word we wrote, because we would surely fail on both counts. We just told ourselves we were putting off writerly negativity for a while. It worked. I’m doing it again now. Maybe you should too. When doubt rises up, you tell it, ‘Nothing personal, but I think we should spend some time apart. See you in September.’”

Courtney asks that you consider donating here.

Claim your words.

Jami