Garret was having no better time of it. We usually arrive at swim class a bit early so the G-man can splash around in the shallow end before he faces taking turns with the laps and the breathing. Usually, there's another boy there, Jonathan, who is the sweetest little boy in the world, but who has no boundaries. He sees Garret get into the pool and charges toward him and wraps him in a wet bear hug and kisses his face and puts his nose on Garret's nose and smells him and touches his hair. All the while Garret stands there smiling awkwardly and looking around for Jonathan's Mommie. And then she strides over from the chairs where we sit. She leans out over the side of the pool and says, "No, honey. Garret doesn't like that." She says it over and over again while reaching out to tug him away. Jonathan doesn't want to hear this, but he takes it, and goes off, still smiling. Then when she turns her back, he comes bounding over again. His Mommie has apologized to me about this, and I just shrug. I really want to say, "Hey, all kids are nuts. Mine, too. What can you do?" Clearly, this would be the wrong thing to say, but it's true. At no time does Garret ever say anything to Jonathan. He doesn't push him away or say go away. Nothing. He just stands there, waiting.
So Garret and Jonathan are doing their little ceremony with Jonathan cutting glances at mom to see when she's not looking. I'm writing out the list that will not end. This paperwork, these errands, this deadline. Endless. I know that this little respite will be the last time I have to think until midnight. After the lesson ends, I hustle Garret out of the pool and into the locker room to shower and change and off to the car. The instant we get in the door, it's already 5 and I'm late leaving for my 6 o'clock class at a bookstore just far enough away in suburban Boston to need an hour's stop-and-go through rush-hour traffic. I workshop 11 stories between 6 and 9, then head home to set the coffee maker, pour a martini and start a 10 o'clock phone meeting to line edit the Indecent Proposal that absolutely, positively must hit the agent's desk by Friday. Then I sit dazed in front of the TV until exhaustion takes over.
The question is this: When to write? What to write? My schedule is all over me like that sweet little boy in the pool. I like all my little jobs, but no one is going to tug them away so I can get some space. Not writing for a few days doesn't work, either. Try that once, and you'll wake up a month later, or a year later, and find an empty notebook and an imagination to match. Ask me how I know this.
The answer yesterday was to sow some seeds on the back page of my notebook. This concept came from a student last term, a wonderful writer who also teaches English in middle school. She gives her students journals at the beginning of the year and the kids have to start by making a list of things that interest them on the very last page. Then later on, when someone whines and says, "I can't think of what to write," she can very sweetly point out the list they have made for themselves. It's sort of like saying "shut up and write" but ever so much nicer.
THE EXERCISE: Chuck the to-do list. That battle was lost long ago. Make a list of impulses, artistic or otherwise. It can be a list of book ideas, story ideas, old anecdotes that might become stories. It can be a list of the sins you would commit if you had the guts. It can be a list of the titles of books you will someday write. It can be the first line of five poems you will never write. It can be news stories that should (or should not) be made into movies. It can be a list of provocative topics (liars, whiskey, garbage, relief, massage) that could yield an interesting paragraph or two--or more. This is a personal collection of ideas still compact and powerful and waiting to grow.