I recently read a Paris Review interview with the author Ann Patchett on the subject of making time for writing despite life’s innumerable distractions. She spoke about having to ignore the pull of these distractions, for example when you realize you need, say, mustard, and you drop what you’re doing (or don’t even start) to go to the store to buy the mustard. Resist this urge, she argued. She explained how her family had gone many meals without mustard. This anecdote has stayed with me. Substitute mustard for: mayonnaise, cayenne pepper, paper towels, shin guards, printer ink, Reynolds wrap, rinse aid, thumbtacks, nose spray, birthday gifts, overdue library books, Mallomars, Halloween decorations, hangers, socks. The running list is endless. There are always errands we create to avoid writing.
What I’ve realized in the last few years as I’ve made writing a priority in my life is that we will always come up with reasons to leave the house, to not sit down when we’re tired, and the difference between those who leave and those who don’t is people who finish and people who don’t. Now as I’m on my way to my desk and I see toys that need to be put away or a book that needs to be re-shelved or an ingredient I need for a meal, I think: mustard. Mustard. Mustard. I tell myself to keep walking, to ignore it.
The next hurdle, of course, is that loud judgy voice in your head. That voice that tells you to stop what you’re doing and get serious about your talent as a writer. I’m in the third, yes, third year of writing my first novel, a work of historical fiction based around the photojournalist Margaret Bourke White. It is hard, so freaking hard, and yet I keep going. When self-doubt gets the best of me, I convince myself I’m not worthy of being a writer, not worthy to spend my time creating this kind of art. Maybe I’m better suited to, say, write an essay of historical women who have been overlooked. But whenever I go down that sort of rabbit hole, I inevitably get a nudge from the universe that compels me to keep going.
The other night while I wiped down the counter after the final meal of the day, I noticed a praying mantis perched on the window right above our sink. This was Margaret’s favorite insect and there she was staring back at me. She wouldn’t move. She didn’t avert her gaze. Hours later, she was still there as if to say, yes it’s me. You’re not imagining this. I will not go away until you understand what I represent. Keep writing about me. Tell my story.
And yes, I want to tell her story but not just a biographical overview hitting the “treetops” of her fascinating life – no, I want to get in there and try to struggle through what may have been going through her mind at the pivotal points in her life. I want to live inside her body and see the world from her perspective, to become as strong as she was.
The story takes place over three separate time periods, spanning the early twentieth century to the present. I realized recently that butterflies appear in each section. I didn’t do this on purpose – thought I know about how image patterns help to reinforce metaphors and themes, I had not consciously chosen the butterfly. This discovery felt like another nudge. There’s more. I follow Life Magazine on Instagram. Every few weeks or so one of Margaret’s photographs appears in my feed, always at the exact moment I needed it, and always an image I know well. Keep going, her face tells me from the past. Tell my story. Write my story. Keep writing. Turn the Internet off. Silence your phone. Stop blogging. Let the answering machine get it. Mustard. Mustard. Tell my story.