Although it is early morning, I am already wishing for colder weather. It’s sunny and hot in Southern California at 7:00 am. On the drive to school, my daughter is quiet in the front seat. I ask if she’s ok. “Fine,” she says. “Just nothing to talk about this early.” I think about the main character of my novel in progress. She’s a mother, like me. She’s tired, like me.
When my daughter is out of the car, I record a voice memo to remember something I’ve seen. I think I can use it. I ramble through how I might use this image: a sheriff, an abandoned car, the shoulder of the highway. “Maybe her car turns up,” I say. “Doors flung open and she’s nowhere in sight.” I talk through the idea of a scene. I will try to remember to transcribe the scene when I get to work. I will forget. The memo will sit, for a few weeks, unplayed.
In undergrad, I took a playwriting class. On the first day, the professor said, “Thinking is writing.” She’d assigned thinking for homework. How silly, I thought then. Now, I remind myself of this daily. Like a mantra, I repeat, Thinking is writing. In the busyness of life as a working mom, sometimes thinking is all I’ve got.
After my daughter is at school, I head to work. Like almost all the writers I know, I’ve got a day job that has nothing to do with writing. I was a teacher, but exhaustion and moving to a new state made me leave. Now, I’m a personal assistant. I schedule flights, send bereavement flowers, run errands, and think.
On a lunch break, I start this post. An empty document with no title but a due date at the top. I read a fiction submission. I scold myself: You should be writing. In between bites of a rather sad turkey sandwich, I jot down notes: balance; when do I write; what am I trying to say. Before I’ve made any real progress, my boss breaks in, “I need you to schedule another pod to ship more furniture to the new place.” The post stays in fragments, a few unlinked thoughts. I need more time to write, I think. Uninterrupted and free.
In the early days of the pandemic, when we all thought it would just be two weeks, then three, then maybe two months, we had nothing but time. Those long days of nothing and nothing and nothing we desperately tried to fill. I frequented Rite Aid because it was open and I just wanted to walk around. I bought pots for plants I knew I’d kill and new lotions to test and a coloring book and bath salts. Then, Rite Aid stopped letting us browse and buy items that were not essential. I walked around the neighborhood slowly. I took my time looking at every item at Trader Joe’s. I drove to and from these essential places aimlessly with nowhere to go and nothing to do but kill time.
I needed something to do, something to fill all those endless hours. At the time, my husband was working from home, we’d moved in with family so there was no rent to pay, and our bills were low because we’d downsized. But the tedium of those hours felt brutal.
Were I a different writer, I might have finished the novel draft I started, the short story collection I started, the essay collection I started. But the truth for me has always been that I need the busyness of life to write. In the emptiness of those hours with nothing to do and no one to see, I froze.
I thought that I wanted to put up a fence around my writing time. But there is no fencing solid enough to blot out the voices of my children asking “Want to go for a walk? Want to make some cookies? Want to play a game? Want to read with me? Want to? Want to?” No fence tall enough to keep me from seeing all of the responsibilities of daily life waiting for me. But it is on the drive, in the office, while playing the game for which my children have begged that I manage to do all the thinking that is necessary for writing. I need the busyness of life to get in the way. I need a document stuffed with fragmentary thoughts, a story half-finished, the kernel of an idea, and the mantra thinking is writing.
Photo by Toshiyuki IMAI, used and adapted under CC.