Notes from the Grocery Store Parking Lot

I teach writing—academic, creative, and technical—for a living. Each week, I help students improve their prose,manage their time, and become better at the craft of writing.  While I’m constantly surrounded by writing, I don’t have much time for my own work.

The fact is—with a special-needs preschooler, a toddler, hundreds of essays to grade each week, low-level childcare, and a husband in graduate school— my own writing is something that just barely fits into my schedule.

Unlike many professional writers I can’t wake up, stroll to my writing nook, daydream, and devote five uninterrupted hours to my daily quotient of words.

Quite the opposite.

In the morning, I’m lucky if I can cook some eggs, let the dog out, brush my teeth, make coffee, change diapers, and still have a complete thought.

Life is busy.

It will never slow down so I can write. But, this does not mean I am giving up on the idea of writing.  What I’ve discovered is that if I want to produce anything, I need to give up on the idea of the perfect spot or perfect time for writing.

So, how do I fit writing into my schedule?

I think about ideas while I drive; I take them into the shower; and, I notice things in the world and bring them into my work.

For example, currently, I’m working on a middle-grade fantasy novel.  I know the plot, I have the characters, I have a draft done, but, until recently, it felt lifeless.

Then, all of a sudden, while searching for my son’s shoes, I saw one of my character’s shoes in my mind. They were black and brown skateboarding shoes with scuffs on the toes and Sharpie drawings on the rubber.  Seeing them got me thinking about other items my characters might have.  In almost no time, my characters evolved from mere lists of traits into living, three-dimensional people.

Keeping stories alive is important and so is taking notes.  I try to jot a few of my thoughts, observations, and sentences from the day onto napkins, a post-its, or on my laptop. Sure, I rarely get more than a page done, but writing is like working out or losing weight or helping a child develop- it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

Being ready to seize on moments to write is crucial to fitting writing into a busy schedule.

A few days ago, both my kids fell asleep on the way to the grocery store. I could have woken them up, plopped them into the cart, and dragged them my grocery list.  Or, I could have called a friend or read the book I had brought.  I realized, however, that this might be my only quiet time in the day.  So, I parked, pulled out a notebook, found a pen, and wrote for half an hour while they slept.   It wasn’t my ideal spot, it wasn’t optimal conditions, but it was bit of quiet when no one needed me.

So, although I’m busy, I know I can finish this novel.

Doing it will take persistence, planning, work, and a willingness to fit writing in where I can. I’ll have to keep my eyes open and a pen in my pocket.  I’ll have to resist the urge to watch TV after a long day.  I’ll have to work, suffer, imagine—and do all this while doing everything else in my life.

Will I ever make as much money as Stephen King or JK Rowling?

Not likely.

Is it worth it?

I think so.

Because I know that if I can write a novel in the grocery store parking lot, it will change me.  It will teach me the joy, pain, fear, and triumph of creation.  It will let me hear my own voice among all the other noise in my life.  And, most importantly perhaps, when this book is done, I will know what it is that I can do even when it seems like I can’t possibly do anything more.