Photo credit: Heidi Ross
Every November I’m dumbfounded by the international phenomenon of National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, as it’s commonly called. I’m not a novelist, but even if I could actually write a novel, I’m definitely not capable of writing an entire novel in a single month, much less in the short, holiday-interrupted month of November.
Nevertheless, I perked up in 2014 when my friend Susannah Felts — novelist and cofounder of Nashville’s nonprofit literary center, The Porch Writers’ Collective — put out an open call on Facebook for a NaNoWriMo accountability group. Unlike the real NaNoWriMo, Susannah’s version of accountability involved no word-count targets. The rules were simple: We would each do our own writing by whatever rules we set out for ourselves. Once we had met our goals for the day, we would reply-all to the group email with one word: Done.
The NaNoWriMo Peer Pressure Club convened a day late, on November 2, and that tardiness is probably why I had the nerve to join. This kinder, slacker version of accountability appealed to me because my actual life felt completely overwhelming. My mother had just died, and my mother-in-law was in hospice care. The suffering, the constant reminders of mortality, mortality itself — I needed some way to sort through it all, to find words for the endless grieving.
All my life I’ve thought of myself as a writer, but I gave up writing the year I took a full-time job as an editor, the same year my mother moved into the house across the street from me because she could no longer live safely on her own. By the time Susannah invented the NaNoWriMo Peer Pressure Club, I hadn’t written a single word of my own in more than five years. Another friend had already suggested, gently, that writing might help with the grief. Still another had pointed out that writing 15 minutes a day would be enough to remind me that I was still a writer, even in the midst of all that caregiving.
A single essay is not much to show for a month of writing, but it was also not nothing.
So I started out with a paltry goal of 15 minutes a day. Some days I didn’t manage even that much. Five days before Thanksgiving, my husband’s parents got kicked out of their assisted living facility for needing too much assistance, even with round-the-clock help from us and an army of aides. My husband’s five brothers and sisters arrived at our house, round-robin-style, to help with the disaster. I dropped out of the NaNoWriMo Peer Pressure Club because I had all the pressure I could handle. Far more than I could handle.
But most days I kept writing anyway: 15 minutes when I could manage it, a single sentence when I couldn’t. In only a few weeks, that little jump-start had gotten under my skin. After five years of surrendering to work and eldercare responsibilities, those few minutes with a notebook every morning had given me permission to write again.
More importantly, writing was giving me a new understanding of my own family. Instead of being frustrated with my father-in-law’s decisions about my mother-in-law’s care, I began to understand how, after 60 years of a happy marriage, it might feel impossible to say goodbye. Instead of feeling like death and dying had usurped my life, I came to understand that death isn’t separate from life at all. Death belongs to life in the same way that grief belongs to love. This is just how things work for mortal beings. I don’t know how I had managed to live for so long without ever really understanding that truth, but I was finally writing my way toward understanding.
I may have bailed on the NaNoWriMo Peer Pressure Club, but by the end of November I had drafted an essay anyway. One short essay, not even as long as the essays I had once been able to write in a single Sunday afternoon back when everyone I loved was young and healthy and happy, back when I was young and healthy and happy myself. In those days, life felt limitless because it was still expanding, because it had not yet begun to diminish in ways that I will grieve to the end of my own life.
A single essay is not much to show for a month of writing, but it was also not nothing, and that was the truth I found myself clinging to. It was an actual essay, and it would not exist if I had continued to wait for my life to get easier, for some magical expanse of writing time to open up. A month later, I made that 15-minute writing goal my New Year’s resolution, and I stuck with it, more or less, for the next two years.
I didn’t write every day, but I wrote many more days than not. I opened my notebook first thing in the morning, and I kept it open all day. Some days I came back to the essay again later, whenever I had a few minutes to spare. That was the unexpected advantage of writing every day, if only for a tiny stretch of time: even when I wasn’t sitting at my writing table with a pen in my hand, I was keeping the essay in my thoughts. When the time did come to sit down again, I didn’t need to re-read what I’d written; I didn’t waste time trying to remember where I’d left off. It was always right there, ready when I was, because I was never far away from it.
Even more surprising was the discovery that I didn’t need to be consciously thinking about what I was writing to be thinking about what I was writing. The act of writing seemed to prime my unconscious mind for more writing. I could be standing in the shower or carrying groceries in from the car or waiting for the dog to do her business, and a word that had eluded me earlier in the day suddenly handed itself over on a tufted pillow. Sometimes a dead-end from the morning’s 15-minute session turned into an epiphany later that night.
Life had not gotten any more manageable through the introduction of yet another item for my to-do list, even one that took only 15 minutes to check off. My mother-in-law’s death put an end to the immediate emergencies, the never-ending trips to the doctor, but my father-in-law’s grief was just beginning; after she was gone, he needed us more than ever. Meanwhile, my job was not getting any less demanding, and my teenagers were not getting any less moody.
All of which explains, at least partly, why the essays in Late Migrations
are so short. I did the best I could in the time I had, and the time I had was 15 minutes a day.
But 15 minutes a day, it turns out, is enough time to write a book. It’s also enough time to knit a sweater, to learn a musical instrument, to establish an exercise routine. Mastery won’t come overnight, but that doesn’t matter. Life is not a race, and this is not the story of the tortoise and the hare. It’s the story of the tortoise and herself. Whenever anyone asks me how I finally came to publish a book at the age of 57, I tell them that I gave myself permission to spend 15 minutes a day, in the midst of working and raising a family and tending to failing elders, to remember who I am.
÷ ÷ ÷
is a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times
, where her essays appear weekly. Her work has also appeared in Guernica
, Literary Hub, Proximity
, and River Teeth
, among others. She serves as editor of Chapter 16
, the daily literary publication of Humanities Tennessee, and is a graduate of Auburn University and the University of South Carolina. She lives in Nashville.