This month, we are delighted to welcome Melanie Neale as a guest blogger to 5Writers.com.
Melanie Neale grew up living aboard a 47’ sailboat with her parents and her sister. The family traveled the US East Coast and the Bahamas from the mid 1980’s to the end of the 1990’s, and both daughters were home-schooled until they went to college. Melanie began writing poetry and short stories when she was a young child, and she earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing from Eckerd College in 2002 and a Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing from Florida International University in 2006. She lived aboard her own 28’ sailboat while in graduate school in Miami. She has taught college, captained and crewed on boats, detailed boats, worked in a bait shop, worked in marketing, and currently works as the Director of Career Services for a private art college in northern Florida, where she lives with her husband and daughter. Melanie has published fiction, poetry and nonfiction in many literary journals and magazines, including Soundings, Seaworthy, Southwinds, GulfStream, Latitudes & Attitudes, The Miami Herald’s Tropical Life Magazine, Balancing the Tides, The Georgetown Review, RumBum.com and Florida Humanities. She is also a recipient of several awards for her writing. Her “Short Story” column appeared bimonthly in Cruising World Magazine from 2006 to 2009. Boat Girl: A Memoir of Youth, Love, and Fiberglass was published in 2012 and the Middle Grade version, Boat Kid: How I Survived Swimming with Sharks, Being Homeschooled, and Growing up on a Sailboat, was published in 2013, both by Beating Windward Press.
Writing Under Constraints: The Writing, Working, Commuting, and Cooking Mom by Melanie Neale
On a trip through Central Florida last week for my day job, I made an impulse stop in the central-Florida spiritualist town of Cassadaga. I believe more than I’d like to admit in all things spiritual, and once every year or two the little town sucks me in. I sat in a small room that smelled like lavender and sandalwood and shuffled a tarot deck while the spiritualist from the Cassadaga Hotel read my aura. After a few minutes of the standard introductory banter, she said: “You know how people refer to eyes in the back of your head? Well, I see you with eyes all around your head.” I laughed and tried to shake off the mental image of a creepy halo of eyeballs.
But what she was getting at is that I’m not only someone who juggles like crazy—I’m someone who is watching and monitoring everything at once. I have an eye on my career as the Director of Career Services for a college, an eye on my toddler who is the most dynamic creature I’ve ever seen, an eye on my husband who is going through a period of intense personal growth, an eye on my writing career and community, and an eye out for any opportunities to grow or nurture any of these things. I commute an hour each way, five days a week, to a demanding and stressful day job where I am held accountable for many, many things that are out of my control. I strive to exercise intensely at least 5 hours a week. I do all of the shopping and cooking because my husband is in grad school, works full-time, and also commutes an hour each way. I spend as much time with my kid as I can. We just bought a really old sailboat, which we’re restoring on the weekends. Plus, I have a writer career.
My non-writer friends joke about me being the “I-don’t-know-how-she-does-it” chick, which is about as far from the truth as you can get. And my paranoid side thinks that my writer friends joke about me being a giant slacker. Yes, I had two books published in a year, but one was just a trimmed down Middle Grade version of the other. And no, I don’t write every day. As a matter of fact, my next book is just a pathetic first few chapters right now. The friends who think I’m awesome (and they can keep thinking that) don’t see me walking into work late almost every morning because my toddler didn’t want to wear pants that day or just didn’t want to get in the car to go to day-care. They don’t realize that, while I cook my family dinner every night, we don’t eat until 8:30 because we all get home so late. And they don’t realize that the only reason my house is somewhat clean is because I spend money we don’t have on a monthly maid service. They don’t realize that I’m “on,” as a mom, wife, and career woman from about 5:30 every weekday morning until after 9:00 every night. They don’t hear the self-doubt (does it make me a bad mom that I just want to take a week and go somewhere by myself and write? Am I a bad wife because I don’t stay up even later at night to spend time with my husband, who apparently only needs 4 hours of sleep? Am I a terrible writer because I choose, most mornings, to exercise for an hour rather than write? But wait—if my body falls apart, I can’t write…and I want to write…I’m a writer, right?).
So…yes, I have some constraints on my time. And I wish I could offer great advice that would solve everyone’s problems (including my own) on how to deal with this and still be true to one’s art, but all I have are a few things to share that have helped me to handle the chaos.
Be optimistic and kind to yourself. I am embarrassingly optimistic. I couldn’t exist if I wasn’t. So, if I only write 500 words (or fewer!) in a week, I don’t beat myself up over it. I try to look at what I’ve done and say to myself, “well, you could have done more, but at least you’ve made progress…” I would love to be able to keep a writing schedule. My mind works best early in the mornings (a 5 to 9 AM writing schedule would be awesome), but my kid is the most active early in the mornings too. So, I steal a moment or two when I can. The occasional naptime on the weekends. That period of time at work between 5 and 6 PM when my office is semi-quiet (these are the nights when I walk into day-care right at closing time and the teachers look like they want to strangle me). Lunch time (I know eating at your desk is bad for you). It’s not much, but this is how I got my memoir, Boat Girl, rewritten and ready for publication. Anything helps.
Use your time well. Remember that ten hours a week I spend in the car? I wish I was one of those people who could dictate my writing, but my mind processes spoken words differently than it does written. I’m a crappy talker. But I do listen to audiobooks. I subscribe to Audible, and try to listen to anything a friend recommends or anything that I think will inspire me. As my kid has gotten older and started repeating everything, I’ve had to save the dirtier stuff (took me a long time to finish The Story of O…) for the rare times that she’s asleep or I’m driving by myself, but always having an audiobook going keeps my mind working like a writer’s. Listening to Cheryl Strayed’sWild while I was in the final revisions of my memoir was one of the things that pushed and inspired me.
If you’re addicted to social media, make it at least a little bit about books. I’m on Facebook all the time for my job, and also because I’m an addict. But I don’t just use it to stalk people. I keep it linked with GoodReads so I can see what my friends are reading. I check out recommendations on GoodReads, and look at how other authors are using social media to market themselves. I market myself and repost things about writing. And I stay connected with writer friends who inspire me. We make friendly jabs at each other and challenge each other, and it gives me the sense that I am still connected to a writing community even though the community I had in grad school has dispersed. Lots of the folks in my new community have kids and day jobs too, so they get the time constraints that I’m under. And when I’m finished doing writerly things on Facebook, I post emotionally charged music videos and check out funny memes and lament about my weight so that other people give me attention.
If you have to have a day job, work at a college. Teaching English is the traditional post-MFA career path, but if you can’t get a well-paying tenure-track teaching job (a what?), then at least work at a college. I help art students find employment. It’s high stress. But at least, at the end of the day, I know that I’m helping artists. They inspire me tremendously. I understand why they are passionate about their art, and I feel like they feed my creativity. Students, of any kind, are inspiring, so feel free to suck away a little bit of their energy.
Be curious. Ask people questions that make them uncomfortable. Use your time to study people. A student asked me recently why I carried two cell phones. It was something that a non-observant person would never have asked, and she knew it was awkward the moment it came out of her mouth. But something about her just having the balls to ask the question riveted me—she was thinking like a writer. So ask people things. Learn about them. Maybe they carry two cell phones because they have a private pre-paid-untraceable-cash-only phone on which their secret lover calls. Or maybe, like me (I know, boring…), they have a work phone and a personal phone—a great symbol for juggling, right?
Let your family in on your writing, but not too much. You are a mystery to them. Your kid sees your book and says, “Mommy,” and goes and stands proudly next to it. It’s the most awesome feeling in the world. You close your laptop when your husband walks by because you aren’t ready for him (yet) to read about a boyfriend that you had in college. You slip into second person when you’re trying to pretend you’re not writing about yourself. Anyway, what I’m saying is this: remain a mystery, because if they invade your mind too much (“I’d like it better if you wrote about this, not that…”) you’ll start losing yourself. But let them know how important it is to you to writ and how much you need their support. Because if your family doesn’t support you, you’re doomed and so are they. If a writer friend came to me and said, “My family doesn’t support my writing,” my advice would simply be to eliminate them. Somehow. This is why people don’t ask me for advice unless they really want it.
I really do feel like writing under all the constraints of my day-to-day life is good for me. I need to be stimulated and I need the colors and sounds and smells and touches of life outside of home to be inspired. Because I am pulled in so many different directions, I know how valuable my time is, and so I don’t waste it. Between the work, the family, mental and physical health, cooking meals and shopping and laundry and commuting and that old sailboat I mentioned in paragraph one, there is always a little bit of time to write.