Monday, June 7, 2010

Guest Post by Helen Simonson: Writing Interrupted

My writing style can be best described as procrastination plus panic. It took me five years to write my debut novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, and it might have taken a lot longer, had the crashing economy not made it vital to finish my MFA thesis and go find a ‘real’ job. After a slow process in which a single chapter might take me a month to complete, and the computer date stamps showed weeks of inattention, I finished in a mad dash. I endured six weeks of terror in which self-doubt appeared as a very hairy little goblin woman who sat on my left shoulder and screamed abuse in my ear, while my world shrank to the three gray walls of a fabric cubicle and the glow of a laptop screen.

Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes I really like the writing. What I like is the completely blank mind that comes …after I have said aloud the awkward meaning of what I am trying to say, only ungrammatical…and just before the perfect phrase pops up; syntactically shiny and glowing with freshness. Those moments make me get up from my office chair and do a little jig of joy. I also like the thrill of pages fresh and hot from the printer, with numbers in the footer and my name on the top left; Helen Simonson. Imagine then how fabulous it was when I was finally presented with my name in print, on the cover of a real book!

I have written only one novel so far and I am horrified to report that it began with the slightest of ideas. I had a moment of clarity in which I decided to write something for myself, and my mind immediately produced a small brick house in the country and an older man, wearing his dead wife’s housecoat, answering the door to a stranger. I believe this moment of authentic self – in which I refused to care what others would think of me – was important to me and will be to you. We’d all like to be Tolstoy or Chekov, or Alice Munro, and sometimes we want that so badly that we reject our own voice; the one with the tendency towards humor and the distinct lack of interest in alienation, suburban angst, drug addiction - or sex presented as an act of nihilism. However, at best we can expect to produce somewhat competent pastiches of more famous (more depressed?) writers. To write something unique, I now believe, we can only go with the voice we have and hope that it is enough. When I wrote for myself, something sprang to life that I had not been able to create before. Give it a try.

Once I had a few lines, I just tried to keep going. Writing is like making one of those awful mosaic tabletops with broken plates and grout. Small shards of ideas, experience and images seemed to funnel from my head into my fingertips. I wrote linear, chapter by chapter; I also made visual story webs with fat markers on large sketchpads, as if I were in middle school. What I refused to do is to jump around and write all over the place, hoping to fit it together later. Many people like this method but I found it too scary.

I don’t believe it matters whether we write in a writing studio or on a park bench, watching our kids playing. What we all need is just to pile up pages. I find the biggest problem in piling up the pages is headspace. If I so much as look at email, consider the dirty dishes in the kitchen, sneak into the refrigerator or fight with a telephone marketer, my head fills with noise and my writing is over for the day. I try to write in the mornings and to set aside anything else that pops into my head (call the plumber, pay the mortgage, am I picking up a kid or is he going to Crew?) by writing it in a daily planner under the heading ‘call after 1pm’. I also found office space outside of my home. It’s a place I can be ‘writer’ instead of ‘mother’ for a few hours. A coffee shop might do the same trick.

I think that any kind of space and support you can build around your writing will help it survive. A set writing time, a writing class, a weekly editing group, a brief writing window carved out lunchtime at your ‘real’ job– all these can be useful. As my pages piled up, I found that they provided a foundation of support under the idea that I could be a writer. My longtime writing group, with their acerbic edits and my MFA classes with their discussions of ‘craft’, helped make writing an education, while I piled up enough pages to make it a real job. Good luck with your writing!

Helen Simonson


  1. "We can only go with the voice we have and hope that is enough..." And oh, what a voice, it is! Although I love Helen's British humor and delectable characters—her unique voice is the primary reason "Major Pettigrew" enchanted me from the moment I first picked it up until I (reluctantly) turned the last page! It's wonderful to read new authors, as it gives us all something to look forward to—their future work. Helen is just such a writer. Three cheers for Helen—and her bright future—with or without the equally bright housecoat!

    Marsha Toy Engstrom
    The Book Club Cheerleader

  2. Thanks for addressing my major issue of finding/utilizing/sneaking/stealing the time to write. There are so many distractions, legitimate and otherwise, that tend to derail even the most disciplined writer (which is, alas, not me). This remains true even when the kids have left: the dog, the mortgage you mentioned, the yard, the cars, finding the next job, managing the one you have. Maybe I should borrow your gremlin.

    I've tried committing a set number of minutes a day to write; never could figure out where to fit it in. Perhaps I'll try your "protected time of day" approach. Once I sit (with browser off), I can freely write.

    I'm doing the "jump around, catch as catch can" style of writing, which seems to fit my flaky memory better. Plus I get to write the fun parts -- like eating desert first. Unlike you, I now have to put together a fluid mosaic from that pile of tiles. Yikes!
    Congrats on the book, and good luck with your next! (What, you thought you were done?!)
    jim chandler

  3. I love the title of this post and it was such fun to read. Thanks!