the challenge of being a writer who doesn’t write

by caitlin meredith

You, like many people, might have some preconceived notions of what writers do. Chief among them, I presume, is that writers write. I would like to correct you. This is not always the case. I, for instance, am a writer who does not write.

You might be thinking this sounds great. I get an official occupation  – “writer” – but don’t actually have to do anything to earn it, leaving me with oodles of time to goof off and really live. But you are also wrong about that. What you don’t know is that being a writer who doesn’t write is very, very time-consuming. It’s actually such a full time job that there isn’t any time left over for writing.

This brings me to the existential question all non-writing writers are routinely forced to confront: Where the fuck did all of the time go? Every Sunday I look at my schedule for the following week and am relieved to find hours-long stretches of un-assigned time slots perfect for delving deep into one of my projects. By Friday afternoon, however, the calendar has mysteriously transformed from tabula rasa to tabula run run run. When Sunday afternoon rolls around again it is truly a surprise that another week has passed without the Microsoft Word program ever being booted up on my MacBook. Makes one wonder about time management.

In fact, many successful writers out there (assholes) hold seminars about how all a writer needs is time management. I know they do because I’ve been to some of those seminars. They tell you to carve out a special time for yourself (usually the example is drawn from a preternaturally early morning person who just happens to really like the pre-dawn hours (see: asshole!)) and keep to a strict schedule. Every time I hear this I get invigorated and underline the point in my notebook: Find a good time to write! Everyday! That sounds so easy that even a dummy like me could start churning out the daily pages just as soon as the seminar is over. And then…it never fucking works.

This all started last Fall when I decided instead of looking for a full time job to try my hand at being a writer with a capital W. This is when I learned that having all the time in the world to write is actually too much time to write. After a couple days at home alone all day each week I would invent excursions to Home Depot or Marshalls just to have some social interaction. In order to prevent this isolation I started to schedule lots of lunches and coffee dates with friends. I spent a lot of money and most of my time going out so I wouldn’t be home not being able to write because I was too anxious that I didn’t have a social life. I solved that problem! My social life became my life and my anxiety shifted. Now I was worried that I didn’t have any time to write. And I was right – I didn’t.

That’s when the guilt and shame came in and started to suck up even more time. Guilt became the frosting that held together all the other layers of my busy (non-writing) life.  Shame was the sprinkles on top. They are very portable and can be slathered and sprinkled onto all other activities, unlike writing which requires focus and a laptop. I needed to kickstart myself out of this not-writing -> guilt + shame cycle.

For ten days in March I went to Santa Monica to hunker down and get serious. It worked. I came back to Austin with 26 pages, hoping I’d graduated from the vicious social/writing anxiety cycle to become a secure, productive home writer putting in my hours, earning my happy hour drinks. Instead, I shifted into the prohibitive-to-writing external events phase. I need not bore you with the details, but here is a summary of the life events in the past three weeks (only the past three weeks!) that have required hours/days/weeks of attention, rendering a daily writing schedule impossible:

  • Live termite infestation in my living room
  • Brake failure in my old Volvo
  • New puppy
  • New puppy with bloody diarrhea
  • ***This just in: this morning, the very morning I was supposed to finish this post, I stepped on a rusty nail and needed to get a tetanus shot***

Do these seem like conditions under which one can establish the serene writers’ life??

You’re probably already thinking that you know what my problem is (besides bad luck with old and new assets and time management). Probably I just don’t have anything to write about so I should go out there and collect a bunch of life experiences so I have something to write about. Then I will be ready to be a writer.

Again, you’re wrong. The problem isn’t a lack of ideas or material. I’m brimming with good writing ideas. I’m the one pulled over in the Wendy’s parking lot so I can scribble down my great idea for a blog post, magazine story or book.  The back part of each of my notebooks is dedicated to these story ideas. I’ve seen some shit go down. The kind of shit that people get paid to write about – just not me. So, when I tell you the problem isn’t ideas or material, believe me.

Nor is the problem not having a good place to write. Some people have to live with loud roommates or in studio apartments where they have to wash the dishes in order to use the only table as a desk. I have an office in my house, a room of my own, if you will. It’s quiet, has a beautiful, large desk and a sweet view of my back yard. The refrigerator is near enough that I don’t have to worry about how accessible cheese is at any given moment, but not so near that I can too seamlessly blend snacking and writing (which usually ends in me inventing some great new recipe – that’s how I discovered the delicious cottage cheese with brown sugar combo when living in New Orleans) thus inadvertently abandoning my keyboard.

It’s really an impossible situation.

And it gets even worse. You can’t just lead your unproductive, self-esteem destroying, failing life in private, it always gets trotted out into the public arena. Let’s take friends and family. When you tell friends and family that you’re dedicating this unemployed part of your life to writing, they naturally want to know what you are writing. A clue that you are also a writer who does not write (WWDNW) is that this question can make you feel incredibly defensive. Another clue is that all of your answers start with, “Well, I want to write about….” Instead of, “I’m writing….”

And not only do your friends and family want to know what your mysterious writers’ life is all about, so do strangers. My mom always bristles when people ask her what she’s writing. We’ll be leaving a holiday party and my mom will say, “Did you hear that guy asking me what I’m writing? What an asshole!” I always thought this was funny. Such an innocent, well-intentioned small talk question met with such raised-lip scorn. My mom hates talking about what she’s writing. She says if she talks about it she won’t write it. I get that, even if it seems unavoidable in polite company. The difference between my mother and me, and our respective entitlement to be annoyed by this question, is that she actually writes. I’m not worried about my creative process, I just don’t want to scramble for a bullshit answer on the spot.

So far my experience of being a writer has been like constantly failing on a diet. I binge on social carbs, I skip the accountability word-weight check in, I sneer at skinny bitch publishing authors and I whisper to myself the mantra every night as I fall asleep: tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow….Not exactly the creative, dedicated and meaningful lifestyle I had envisioned last Fall.

So, in summary, if you’re planning on being a writer, I really highly recommend – in fact I could not really highly recommend this enough – becoming a writer who actually writes rather than one who doesn’t. If given the choice (which apparently despite my free will and unemployed status I don’t seem to think applies to me) I would definitely choose to be a writing writer.

To end this post, I will share the update I sent my new friend and writing accountability partner, Carolyn, on the first day of the rest of my life (last Monday):

Number of hours had hoped would write: 2
Number of hours wrote: 0
Number of hours spent despairing about lack of writing: 15-17
Percentage felt that I could legitimately introduce myself as a writer at friend’s birthday party on Saturday night: 2.8%
On a scale of one to ten, expectation that coming week will be any better: -2
Adjective that best describes confidence level vis-à-vis my ability to be a writer: low

This week’s goal:
I would like to write one blog post.


Watch out New Yorker Magazine!! You’ve got a tiger on your tail!!