By Kathy Shiels Tully
Talking to a writing friend (whom I’ll call “W”) about my roadblocks to writing, I reported significant progress since our last chat. An eye-popping 50,000-plus word SFD (shitty first draft) as author Anne Lamott dubs it. I wasn’t boasting. I was shocked.
For over a decade, I freelanced for The Boston Globe—features, travel, opinion, personal essays, profiles of people and businesses, along with the weekly events calendar and restaurant reviews. Heck, I even did amateur photography.
Yet with each assignment, crippling writer’s block and imposter syndrome engulfed me. Finding ideas, pitching them, conducting interviews? Easy. But sitting down at my computer to write the story? With each looming deadline, my family witnessed my debilitating anguish.
Then the pandemic hit. I decided to pause, pursue another dream—writing a book. I’d attempted it over the years, but had nothing to show (unless you count the writing in my head where it’s brilliant and flawless!)
“What did you do differently?” W asked.
Hmmm… Replaying the previous two months in my head, one thing stood out.
“I joined a writer’s studio at this new arts center in my town called ‘Follow Your Art Community Studios (FYACS),’” I said. “It’s a big, yellow Victorian house on Main Street, with art classes held on the main floor for all ages and abilities, and rentable artists studios upstairs, including one for writers.”
I gushed about the two floor-to-ceiling bookcases sandwiching a large conference table, three large picture windows filling the room with natural light, non-working fireplace, and lounge chair alongside the windows where I’d sometimes sit and read before writing.
“It inspires me. I go three times a week for three hours each,” I mumbled.
“What do you do once you’re there?” W asked. “Paint me a picture.”
I laughed. I’m no artist. My picture would be scribble. My writing’s unorganized. Notebooks and tiny scraps of paper are scattered all over our house.
After joining FYACS, however, I was surprised by an overwhelming urge to organize. “New Writer Kathy” found a black leather briefcase, a carryover from corporate days, and packed it full of index cards, yellow legal pads, looseleaf paper, five sharpened No. 2 yellow pencils, pens, a planner, my laptop and charger, then left it in the foyer.
“I feel like a fireman,” I told W. “Ready to go on a moment’s notice. I call it my ‘writer-to-go’ bag.”
What I didn’t confess was another subtle change. For the first time, I began believing I was “a writer.”
How did that happen, and in only two months, when hundreds of bylines couldn’t convince me? Was it the cost of admission ($60/mo; 3 hours for $25) requiring I show up—to myself—as a writer? Had my inner resistance worn down after weeks of punching the security code into the electronic keypad to step across the threshold? Or was it being around this community of creatives—painters, potters, jewelry makers, writers? Observing them muddle through their craft’s slow, imperfect process, they unknowingly supported me while I struggled with mine.
Each visit, I abandoned my Imposter Syndrome like an Amazon package on FYACS’s front porch. As I wrote, page after page, I felt the magic of writing return. Now I understood why Virginia Woolf advised women writers to have a “room of one’s own.”
W interrupted my thoughts. Had anything else changed?
Yes, I told her. I started writing by hand. Pencil on paper. Some find it slower and frustrating, but I crave the mind-hand-soul connection as my yellow pencil flows across the page. My writing seems truer. I’m not tempted to edit while writing. The pink eraser comforts me. I’m content to scribble. Cross out. Type and edit later.
And another change. Instead of my typical spiral notebook, I’d written on looseleaf paper, something I hadn’t done since… third grade?
At home after each session, I forced myself to transfer that day’s drafted looseleaf pages into a white, one-inch binder kept in my kitchen, along with pages of any unrelated story ideas that had popped up while I worked on my SFD. Unrelated ideas always pestered me, like little kids begging attention from their parent. But once I jotted them down, my Monkey Mind went silent. I labelled the last tab “Ideas,” then snapped those pages behind it. Soon, they added up, too.
I described to W my time in the Writers Studio: how I’d unlock the door, flip on the light switch, kick off my shoes, leaving them by the fireplace.
“It’s not required. I started doing it because I joined during wintertime,” I explained.
“Oh! And I have a talisman,” I added. “A teal-colored homemade pottery mug made a local FYACS artist. I walk down the hall to the bathroom, fill the mug with tap water, then return to the writer room, and close the door.”
“For the next three hours, the time is all mine. It’s a real luxury. I grab a pencil, a pile of fresh looseleaf pages and start writing, sipping my water every so often. One hour later, I have to pee, so it builds in a nice, natural break.”
W burst out laughing.
“We called it ‘spill & refill’ in my old corporate days. For three hours, I write-sip-spill-refill. The bells of the 1800s church next door chime on the hour, but I know my time’s up when the five pencil nubs are dull.”
“At home, besides transferring that day’s draft, I re-sharpen all five pencils in an electric sharpener in my kitchen, then repack my bag.”
I exhaled loudly.
“It sounds like you have quite the routine,” W commented.
Routine? I had never had one in my life! I prided myself on it.
“Yes, you do,” W countered, condensing my long-winded description into bullets of precise actions:
- A dedicated place to go
- My pre-packed bag
- All my writing equipment
- Removing my shoes
- Sharpening my five pencils
- My talisman/mug
- Even my water-drinking habit and bathroom breaks!
Slowly, I realized, my SFD didn’t just “happen.”
Not at all. That stack of draft pages resulted from dedicated time and a routine of small, deliberate actions I’d exercised over weeks. My mindset had shifted from being a writer who dreams about writing to one who works hard at it.
Having a dedicated space to myself to practice my craft helped, too. No more squeezing into a small corner of a messy family room/office amid distractions of laundry, constant spam calls, and my loving, but retired husband. Like him, I deserved my own “tool” room like the one where he labored at his craft… so I could labor at mine.
Wait a minute. Writing was work. I’d always imagined it to be effortless dates with my muse who’d sprinkle ideas into my head which I’d spin into stories, then publication.
All my life, I’d idolized writing and writers. Had that romanticized view caused my ceaseless writer’s block?
My time at the FYACS Writers Studio was paying off. Despite no editor or deadline, I’d found traction. My once empty binder, bursting full after a mere ten hours a week over two months, was proof. It was time to relocate the pages again. I found a three-inch binder that was bright pink.
Switching binders was a soul-transforming moment. It reminded me of Helen Keller and the water pump scene in the movie, “The Miracle Worker.” Annie Sullivan, Helen’s teacher, is frustrated when Helen can’t comprehend the word “water.” She shoves Helen’s hand under a gushing water pump. Helen lights up. By feeling the water, she understands the word.
“Writers write,” I once heard Ernest Hemingway, appearing on a morning talk show, say to explain the difference between writers and wannabe writers.
Feeling the weight of completed pages in my hand was my water pump moment. Until then, I’d been blind to owning that I was a writer until I saw—and held—my full binder.
I’d joined the Writers Studio in January, as a calorie-free Christmas gift to myself, even though I secretly harbored doubt I was “a writer”—especially if I thought too much about using the same room as local published authors and an award-winning playwright. Yet, during the pale of winter, while I hibernated inside the Writers Studio, toiling over my SFD, I felt my writer confidence build.
One day, pops of color outside caught my eye. Buds of spring flowers had bloomed into pastels. Pinks! Yellows! Light greens! Inside the Writers Studio, my long dormant writer confidence burst alongside it.
I AM A WRITER!
I wanted to shout it from a window in the Writers Studio.
I owned it. Finally.
It took time and work.
It also took the magic of a room—this room—to write in.
Kathy Shiels Tully is a writer in Melrose, MA, where she lives with (and sometimes, writes about) her family. Before freelancing for The Boston Globe, she started as the “People” columnist for The Melrose Free Press, then became one of the first two reporters for then-new melrosepatch.com. In 2020, her essay won the global category of the Erma Bombeck Writing Competition. www.kathyshielstully.com.
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