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Coin of the Realm: the cost of the creative writing life

by Ellen Santasiero | July 5, 2023

Photo by Shaojie on Unsplash

In Montreal recently for a writing retreat, I paid for a latte at the Café Olimpico by tapping my VISA on a card reader. The window seats at the Olimpico were deep and inviting due to the café’s thick sandstone walls, but I was there to work, so I settled at a small marble-topped table in the back. I got out my notebook, sipped my coffee, and continued work on a short story draft I’d started a few months before.

I never did use Canadian currency, or even exchange for it, while I was there, as it was tap tap tap everywhere I went. I could pay later, and so I did.

Not so in the land of creative writing.

There is no kicking the cost down the road to remit next month, or year. It’s a cash economy there, and too, you must pay up front. With your time, your attention, and your energy.

But even when we have an abundance of those coins, we aren’t always able to pay.

In 1995 when I was a beginning creative writer, I worked a nine-to-five as a graphic designer. After a few years, I asked my boss if I could reduce my hours so I could have Fridays off. I wanted to use that day to write. My boyfriend was OK with my using the spare bedroom in the house we shared, and so I set up a desk and chair in there for myself. Did I go in there and write?

Reader, I did not. Even though I had taken a pay cut, I did not use my Fridays to write.

What held me back?

I read poet Kathleen Norris’s book about acedia, the mental or spiritual torpor that plagued monks and mystics committed to the disciplined contemplative life, but their lot didn’t resonate with me. People suffering from acedia simply do not care. I did care. I deeply yearned to write. For me, the obstacle was resistance, described in rather spartan register by Steven Pressfield in The War of Art.

“Resistance seems to come from outside ourselves,” wrote Pressfield. “We locate it in spouses, jobs, bosses, kids. ‘Peripheral opponents,’ as Pat Riley used to say when he coached the Los Angeles Lakers. Resistance is not a peripheral opponent. Resistance arises from within. It is self-generated and self-perpetuated. Resistance is the enemy within.”

The book helped me. There was something in knowing that I just had the ordinary, everyday, run-of-the-mill resistance that every other human being possesses.

But other things helped me show up regularly to my creative writing practice, too.

I recently led a workshop called “Tying the Knot: Committing to Your Writing Life” during which I revealed to seventeen eager-but-beleaguered souls that:

1. I set a timer for ten minutes and tell myself that all I have to do is write for ten minutes. I can do most anything for ten minutes! When the timer goes off, I’m always in, and I stay in.

2. I have three writers’ groups, two for critique, and one for submitting work. These groups not only give me constructive feedback and moral support, but they keep me accountable by holding me to my deadlines.

3. Finally, I regularly read at open mics or arrange to be a featured reader. There is nothing like the fear of humiliation to motivate oneself.

Writing is hard. It’s damned hard. But we’re not alone. We talk about that all the time at The Forge, and we’re continually inspired by the effect of The Forge’s creative writing community on the Smithys—they up their commitment to their writing lives each month.

I got a lot done on that short story in the café, and in other French colonial style restaurants and cafés in Montreal, and now my draft is off, on time, to an editor for her feedback. To achieve that goal, I paid up front—ka-ching!—with time, attention, and energy.

I must say, it helps to write in a beautiful old city, too.

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1 Comment

Aug 25, 2023

I really enjoy and learn from other Writers who share their stories and experiences with other like minded souls. It helps to inspire me on my Creative Journey of writing my own stories and Poetry. Thank you

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