Resolved: Writing is a job

Ann Patchett
Author Ann Patchett (Melissa Ann Pinney)
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By Ann Patchett
Sunday, December 13, 2009

My New Year's resolution for 2010 has its origins in a couple of conversations I had late in the year 2008. The first was with the bassist Edgar Meyer. I live in Nashville, where it is possible, even easy, to have conversations with famous musicians, and on this night we were at a dinner party complaining to one another about work. Edgar had several promised compositions he had yet to write. I was trying to get started on a new novel. Neither of us was having much luck. We were bemoaning the commitments that kept us from pursuing our most important obligations. But then Edgar admitted he had made a discovery: He put a notebook by the door of his studio and kept a careful record of the number of hours he actually sat down to work. The startling conclusion of this experiment was that the more hours he spent working on compositions, the more music he actually composed.

I don't know why this struck me as such a radical concept, but it did -- time spent working equals output of work. Amazing! I have long tried to fit my work in around all the other obligations in my life, and many days the work finds itself low on the list of things to do, way below laundry and replying to e-mail. Was it possible that by giving my art the same amount of time and attention that I gave to, say, meal preparation, my art might be more likely to flourish?

The second important conversation I had that winter was with my friend Bethany, who teaches yoga. She told me that her teacher, a great and wise yogi, believed that whatever a person did with thoughtful consistency for the first 32 days of the year set the course for the entire year. As a Catholic, this struck me as a warm-up for Lent, and I am a great fan of Lent. I am a genius at giving things up. Since the conversation with Edgar was still kicking around in my head, I decided that I would work on my then un-started novel, or at least make a concerted effort to work on it, for at least one hour every day for the first 32 days of 2009.

I acknowledge that this was setting the bar pretty low, but in fact, even without a regular schedule, I have managed to be a fairly productive person. At the age of 46, I have written five novels, two slim books of nonfiction and enough essays and articles to stoke a fireplace for an entire winter. If I had never made a deal with myself to write every day, it was because I hadn't needed to. In whatever haphazard method I devised, I managed to get things done. But lately blocks of free time were going the way of the snow leopard. On January 1st, I sat down to page one and went to work.

I think of it now as the Edgar Principle: The more time I committed to working, the more pages I stacked up. It turned out that Bethany and her yogi were right as well: By making a commitment for the first 32 days, I had set the course for my entire year, and this novel, which is nowhere near finished, is further along than I would have thought possible last New Year's Eve. So here it is, the end of 2009, and I'm thinking there's really something to this resolution business, though because I want to keep things manageable I am looking at it as more of a January (plus one day of February) resolution. As winter sets in, I have given serious thought to the first month of 2010, and have come up with a completely radical plan: to act as if what I do for a living is really a job.

Oh, say my family, my friends, my readers, it is a job! Maybe so, but for a month I want it to look like one. I want a job like my husband's. He is a doctor who leaves the house between 7 and 8 in the morning and comes home between 7 and 8 at night, and in the 12 intervening hours he works. Imagine that. No lunch dates, no waiting on repairmen, no speaking at book clubs. Don't get me wrong: I love the freedom my work has afforded me. The fact that I can walk away from a difficult scene in my novel and go to Costco with my mother is the greatest job perk I could ask for. But so often these days become packed with the smallest of obligations that squeeze into my schedule like one more bullish child pushing onto an already over-crowded elevator -- until even the one hour I pledged is choked out. What I propose for 2010 is a real work day that would require not just a change of scheduling but also a change of mind. The trick, after all, is not to convince the rest of the world I need to be working. The trick is to convince myself.

Frankly, writing a novel can be uncomfortable at its best and a little torturous otherwise, and if I have failed in the past to always make the time for it, the encroaching world is only partly to blame. The process of writing books is somewhat akin to a very long police interrogation in which the detective leans over the table littered with the butt ends of cigarettes and cold coffee in Styrofoam cups and says for the 87th time, "Now let's go over this again." It is a study in repetition, the ability to read the same page, paragraph, sentence until it could be recited backward and in French in hopes of figuring out which detail is missing, which idea is false. What my days lack in being touched by the muse they make up for in the steady picking of the miner's ax, chipping out a tunnel that may well lead to nowhere.

Writing is an endless confrontation with my own lack of talent and intelligence, because if I were as smart and talented as I ought to be, I would have finished this book by now. I would consider avoiding work the better plan were it not for the fact that to have written a book, to have finished it, is such a glorious thing that it is worth whatever suffering is meted out in the process. And besides, it's good to pry those stories out of my head from time to time and give them some sunlight and the breathing room of paper so they don't all grow into one another and molder. Writing a novel not only means I have a book to hold in my hands, it means I have the space in my brain to think a new one up, and there's every reason to believe that that novel, the one I haven't even started yet, that one may well be brilliant. Now there's a beautiful thought.

All of this is why, at this advanced stage of my career, I mean to make a job of it, at least for 32 days. If you were planning to visit me in January, if you were planning to call, hold off for a while. I have work to do.

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