Of all the graduation speeches I’ve ever heard, the most meaningful one was at the ceremony for a friend who had just become a rabbi. The speaker exhorted these new clerics “to build a fence around their Torah.” He told them that even as they ministered to their congregations and fulfilled their pastoral duties, raised families, and pursued outside interests, they would need to carve out time and space for their own spiritual practice and study.
I’m not religious in any conventional sense and belong to no organized group for spiritual communion, nor do I subscribe to any particular religious orthodoxy. I do have a deep and rich spiritual life, however, one that is nourished by my writing. But putting words on a page doesn’t always put food on the table, money in the bank, or deliver children to soccer practice.
During those years of working outside the home and then driving all afternoon from soccer to ballet to karate with mad dashes to the orthodontist and the grocery store in between, finding time to write was difficult, even with a room of my own. For years, the room I had was unheated, but it was nevertheless where I sought refuge – wearing head to toe polar fleece. On days when I could arrange to write fiction during business hours, I’d be thwarted by phone calls, household emergencies, or simply distracted by keeping an eye on the clock for when I had to start the afternoon driving. So I started getting up early.
Writing while my family slept and before the telephone could ring was the perfect fence to keep out distraction, to allow me the time and space to pursue this writing gig, which keens in me whether I like it or not. I wrote most of two novels in these perfect, early, undisturbed hours when I could focus entirely on my work, because I knew exactly where my children were, and that they were safe – and unconscious. I was not distracted even by maternal worry.
And then one day the kids were grown. I retired first from my management job and then from all but the most interesting and/or profitable freelance gigs. My husband built me a heated studio away from the house, with neither telephone nor internet. It’s perfect, and when I’m out there, nothing exists but the words on the page. It’s just like Anne LaMott says in Bird by Bird: I’m really just listening to the characters in my head and taking dictation.
Even so, some days there are daytime distractions, also known as responsibilities, most of which require a telephone and/or internet access during business hours. These include not just the things we all have to do, like prepare our taxes, but also the things we choose to do, like public service as an elected town official, and a juicy, part-time job spearheading a special project for VPR. As much as I fantasize about writing all day every day, the truth is I do many other things as well, some of which I have to schedule during prime writing time.Lately, there’s been a spate of these things, from the ordinary, like taking the car in for service, to the delightful, like traveling out-of-state to dig into special archives for my current novel. But all these interruptions take a toll.
Writing a novel takes me a long time. I develop characters and situations and settings, writing pages and pages and pages of what I call a first draft but is in truth a messy collection of really good notes. I keep writing, sometimes desperate to discover how to tell the story, and sometimes with faith that I will discover the path.
Faith prevails: I’ve just mapped out the path. I’m ready to rewrite. But the parts I have are so scattered that I must concentrate hard and clear to decide what stays, what goes, and what else has to be added. I can’t do it while waiting for the guy to come fix the furnace; it’s not the sort of writing I can do while waiting for an oil change.
I can and do often write in the odd corners of the day; I think it’s important to be able to write in a noisy cafe and an airport lounge. But at this stage of a 100,000-word book, I need a protected space – a space both physical and temporal, where I will not be disturbed, where I can journey into the heart of the story, the dark places of my characters’ lives. And no one can protect that space for me. I have to build my own fence around it.
Since my daytime responsibilities won’t go away, I have to start getting up early, hours before it’s polite to use the telephone, long before the normal hours when appointments are kept. Early, as in before dawn. Early, as in four-thirty, maybe five.
In order to do that, I have to get to bed on time and sober. I have to turn down evening entertainment, night-time hilarity. I have to be sharp and rested. This is my fence.
A sturdy fence keeps distractions out and concentration in. It requires deeply dug fence posts, which are the pillars of my day, and five – often six – days a week, this means organizing my life so that I can enter that fenced-off place early every morning and write.
Deborah Lee Luskin is an essayist, radio commentator, and novelist. Learn more at www.deborahleeluskin.com