On Real Life & Writing

By Rukhsana Khan

I’m often asked two questions that seem mutually exclusive:

"Where do you get your ideas?" and "How do you find time to write?"

In this article I will share insights to both of these questions.

Have you ever heard the expression: "I was going to write, but real life got in the way"? At first glance this looks like a perennial cop out. All the self help motivational books say anyone can write if they really want to, if they MAKE the time. It is all about wanting it bad enough.

But is it wise to be so driven towards publication, that you MAKE time for writing at the expense of really living your life?

In my case, I was that driven, and still am to some extent.

I didn’t let real life and its commitments prevent me from my writing dreams.

Editors had just started responding personally to my work when I conceived my fourth child. Some of my writing friends assumed that I’d be out of the writing loop for a number of years because of the obligations of motherhood. Not the case. My son was born when I was babysitting and caring for an average of eight kids a day.

I hashed out character flaws while changing diapers, I plotted on the phone with my friend Sydell, while I was spooning cereal into babies’ mouths.

The conversation went something like this:

"Sydell, it’s me. I’m going to have to kill the father. There’s no way he would let the boy and his mother go without a fight --- Jason put that book down. You’re going to tear it-- and of course the daughter won’t co operate when they run away-- Ashley, come sit down and finish your sandwich, good girl."

Babysitting was a way to make ends meet, pay the bills, and it was also a way for me to write. I had a great schedule. In the morning, while the children played, learned, fought and harassed each other, I got my laundry and cooking done. Wisely, I’d enrolled the twins in afternoon kindergarten. By 1:00 pm, the older kids were out the door, in school for two and a half hours, and ALL the babies were down for their naps.

With supper simmering on the stove I had at least an hour and a half of uninterrupted peace before any of the babies woke from their nap. More often than not I had a whole two and a half hours to write.

I wrote my first five books this way.

Just goes to show that where there’s a will, there’s a way.

It’s been a few years since I gave up babysitting. Now I have oodles of time. You’d think I’d get more writing done. Not necessarily. The thing one often finds is that the busier you are, the more you get done. When I was babysitting, I knew I didn’t have time to waste. That two and a half hours in the afternoon was all I was going to get. There’d be no time in the rest of the day, to spend writing. Also, babysitting was the perfect job for me. There was a lot of physical work involved, a lot of fun with babies and kids, wiping noses and washing bottoms, but it didn’t require a lot of mental energy. The kids played with each other and quickly got used to the routine and schedule I set for them. And it left my mind free to plot.

It’s easier to plot when your hands are busy with mundane tasks. Jobs with repetitive motions, giving you time to think are perfect for a writer. Especially if they are physical in nature, because writing is a sedentary occupation. It is good to employ the body as well.

At one writing conference I went to, the author/expert said that in order to make it as a writer, you had to be obsessive about writing. I took his words to heart. The only drawback was that at times it was as if I was sleep walking through the day. My stories were often more real to me than what was going on around me.

But the thing is that while this time of stumbling through life can be productive when you’ve got something to work on, in between, you need periods of growth, or you stagnate as a person and have nothing to say as a writer.

A few months ago, I was watching an interview of Stephen King and he said something very interesting. He said that he wasn’t a writer first and foremost. He said that writing came down the list of his identities. First he was a husband, then a father, then a member of the community, etc. etc. And later on, he was a writer. And he said the reason for this was that all those other things naturally trickled down into his writing. And then he talked about how key incidents in his other roles of life had been the trigger event to write certain books. I got to wondering, if he hadn’t been fully immersed in his ‘real life’ would he have received those inspirations? I rather doubt it.

There are so many writers who are so consumed with being published, they neglect really living their life. It’s actually quite an easy trap to fall into. Not when writing is going well. When the words flow, it’s easy to maintain perspective, but when the creative well is dry, and every story is pulled with great difficulty, then the desperation that you’ll never get published again, tends to set in. And writing solely for the purpose of getting published is one of the poorest excuses for writing, I have ever heard. And yet I know writers who do this.

What I’ve learned is that beneath all the plot devices, story structure and pretty sentences, a writer needs to have something to say. Some perspective on life that is fresh and different. And this requires facing the challenges and learning opportunities life sends your way, head on. It actually requires ‘living your life’. i.e. real life.

It involves building our own character and integrity as conscientiously as we’d build the character and integrity of our protagonist.

It’s almost as if we, ourselves, are characters stumbling along the pages of someone else’s story. And just as we understand that in order for our characters to change and grow they must sometimes sacrifice and suffer and experience what’s going on around them, so too, we must learn from what is going on around us.

This is far from wasted time. This is valuable experience. Grist for the mill. The stuff that will be composted along with all our other experiences and memories to become fertilizer for future stories.

As writers, we don’t write within a vacuum. We actually write within a very narrow perspective, that of our own life experiences. Each of us has certain inherent values and ‘truths’ that we’ve picked up along the journey that is our lives.

In order to learn and grow as writers, we must learn and grow as people. A writer can’t afford to neglect this aspect of themselves in favor of writing courses and attention to sentence structure. After all, what’s the point of crafting a well honed story if you’ve really got nothing new and interesting to add to the collective pool of social wisdom? (Or perhaps I’m just speaking for myself. It might sound pompous but this is what I try to do in my writing.)

I’ve heard that Mark Twain once said, that a writer should never set out to teach or preach, but the end result of his art should be both.

If you look at the stories that really survive through time, the classic literature like Huckleberry Finn, it has at its base, themes that challenged the popular views of their times. And yet I’m sure they weren’t written only for the sake of challenging those views, but rather for the sake of the stories they embodied.

But how were these authors able to recognize the hypocrisy of views that were so universally established and propagated during their times? It takes a certain detachment towards society to be able to observe the flaws in reason and morality in any given culture. A good writer is first and foremost a good observer and in order to be able to observe, you need to be on the edges of society. It’s a little like the old adage of not being able to see the forest for the trees. In order to see the forest, you can’t be in and among the trees. You have to stand back and be willing to see the whole picture.

But even then, many of these artists couldn’t see where their own reasoning was flawed. Hence some of these artists, while being incredibly progressive in terms of ideas that were ahead of their time, still held on to otherwise bigoted and foolish notions that were symptomatic of their times.

As an example, I was reading one of the later Anne books by L.M. Montgomery, when I read a phrase that referred to those ‘heathen Muhammadans’. I was shocked. I had to read the line again. And then I threw the book across the room and slowly realized that it had never occurred to L.M. Montgomery that one day, one of those very ‘heathen Muhammadans’ would be reading her book, and identifying whole-heartedly with the culture she portrayed (she could most easily have made the old biddies of Avon lea into any of my aunts and relatives). I wondered if she’d ever imagined that one of those "heathen Muhammadans" would have read and enjoyed her book so immensely until being offended by such a remark. And I wondered if she knew she was a bigot, and then I realized that she most likely didn’t. For all the times that Anne was bent on overcoming her looks, her red hair and freckles, the creator of Anne, couldn’t overcome the superficial differences of other cultures. But then why should she? She was limited to her perspective and experiences, and perhaps, if she’d ever come face to face with a test of her bigotries, she had failed that test.

As much as an artist can observe the forest, stand back and back to try to get the whole picture, their view will always be limited because they do not have the perspective of time, that great equalizer. That great debunker of myths and exposer of truths. Those who say the hardest test is the test of time, are right.

As writers we can’t afford to run away from real life. It isn’t necessarily wise to quit our day job (especially if it’s mundane and brainless). We should not neglect to live in the real world.

I’d like to share some words a writer friend once told me. I don’t know if he was the first to say them but they resonated so profoundly within me, I thought they might be useful to others. He said that a writer cannot be a better artist than he is a person.

In order to become a better person, and hence a better artist, we must be willing to live life to the fullest, and overcome the tribulations that come our way--and learn from them. Build our own characters as carefully as we’d build those of our protagonists. Because ultimately, what else are we, but heroes in our own life stories? (We tend to think of ourselves as heroes because we wouldn’t want to think we’re villains, though undoubtedly, everyone’s a villain to someone else--justifiably or not.)

This article is copyrighted by Rukhsana Khan and cannot be transmitted or produced without her express written permission.