I’ve been pretty busy lately. I’m commuting between Tacoma, Washington and Phoenix for my final semester of teaching at ASU. I’m in the middle of my term as editor for a major journal in the communication discipline. I’m working with five doctoral students as they take their comprehensive exams and write dissertations. I’m preparing for travel to talk about my scholarship at another university. I’m selling a condo, caring for my kittens, and trying not to neglect the yoga practice I’ve come to value in recent months.
So I’ve decided to be okay with putting my book project aside for a few months. I won’t feel guilty about it. I know that when this semester is over, I’ll be able to get back into the rhythm of writing about the journalists from the 1960s and 1970s that I’ve grown so fond of – those women who were “straddling the world split open” in their lives and work.
But I DO feel guilty if I don’t post to my blog. Oh, I’m okay with posting less often – I have to be okay with that. But by the end of last week, when I realized it had been three weeks since my last post, the discomfort started to build. I needed to write a post – but there wasn’t anything that was burning in my mind waiting to be put down on paper. I’d been too busy to do the ruminating – on the women’s lib era, on feminist issues swirling in the blogosphere, on my own life – to feel like I had much that needed to be said in this space.
And then I thought of Mom. And Vivian. And Marie. And Gloria. And Dorothy. And Marj. And all those women I study who didn’t have the luxury of ruminating for several days or deciding to just delay in posting to a blog. They had column inches to fill for the next day’s paper. The writing just had to get done.
Ellen Goodman, the Pulitzer Award winning columnist from the Boston Globe, spoke about this in 1993 for an oral history project conducted by the Washington Press Club. As a columnist, she had a great deal of freedom in what she wrote. She explained that “the theory, to an almost complete extent, is that they give you the piece of paper, they give you the little piece of real estate, you put in it whatever you want to put into it until such time as they say, ‘This is no good,’ and they take the entire piece of real estate away from you.”
So though there weren’t specific stories to cover, there was ongoing pressure to write pieces that were topical, compelling, and engaging – several times a week. Otherwise, she might lose those column inches of real estate she had worked so hard to control. There were undoubtedly times when she wasn’t really inspired. When the words didn’t come out quite right. But at those times, Ellen said, she just did the writing and then moved on to the next thing. She explained:
But journalism – boy, you’ve got to let it go. It’s a personality. There’s a psychology to it. A colleague of mine at the paper says, “If it’s done, it’s good.” Well, that I don’t feel. Sometimes I go, “That didn’t quite work. I wish I had three more days,” or whatever. But you have to say, “Okay, that’s done. It’s wrapping the fish. Look ahead.”
The other end of this writing spectrum was also in the news last week. We learned that there would be a new novel from Harper Lee. Go Set a Watchman is a book written before To Kill a Mockingbird that looks at Scout as a grown-up woman. I won’t delve into the debates that have raged since this announcement about whether Ms. Lee truly wants to publish, whether she “should” be publishing, and whether the book will be of the same quality as Mockingbird (pretty safe bet that it won’t, but that’s okay with me). What interests me here is that Harper Lee has lived a story of writing diametrically opposed to the one told by Ellen Goodman. Harper Lee published a book 55 years ago. It won a Pulitzer. It was soon made into an Oscar-winning movie. But there was no follow-up novel. In the decades since, she has spoken just a bit about why, and the most straightforward explanation was one she gave a bookseller: “I said what I had to say.”
There’s a popular hashtag among those I follow on Twitter: #amwriting. It’s used to declare activity and intention and to proclaim to all that – for writers – the acts of sitting down at the desk, putting fingers to keyboard or taking up pen, and getting words on the paper or the screen are things we must do. And we must do these things for different reasons. Perhaps because we have column inches to fill. Perhaps because we have great novels in our mind. Perhaps because if we don’t write, we won’t know who we are.
Well, I know who I’m not. I’m not Harper Lee. I’m not Ellen Goodman. But I am a writer. So even when I’m busy, I’ll work to keep at it in whatever capacity I can.