Guest contributor: Nina de Gramont

Bad Advice Wednesday: Don’t Do Anything

categories: Cocktail Hour


            Don’t do anything you don’t have to do. Write instead. It’s not easy. For one thing, you need to come up with a different version of “have to” than non-writers. As in, you don’t have to do those dishes piled up in the sink. Even if your most fastidious sister is on her way over.  Instead, write. The only other thing I’ll let you do is text your sister and tell her it’s not a good time. You don’t have to have visitors, even family! You just have to write.

            Life makes this difficult. I thought that Alice Munro said “Laundry will wait very patiently,” but a Google search corrected me. It was Nora Roberts, which is fine, because I’m slightly more comfortable disagreeing with her. Laundry does not wait patiently. It grows and glowers and rises like an angry beast, threatening to take over your closet and sometimes your bedroom. Ignore it anyway! You have to write.

            The friend you haven’t seen in weeks wants to go out to lunch? I’m very sorry to tell you, but you can’t go. You have to write. Your neighbor points out that your front lawn is looking more Jungle Book than Suburbia? You have to endure the dig, because there’s no time for mowers. You have to write. A former student e-mails, asking you to read her newest short story?  That’s a little tougher. You need to be generous, as people have been to you. You shouldn’t have checked your email. But you did, so go ahead and say yes, but warn that it may take a while, and then read it during time allotted for other things. Not writing. During writing time, you have to write. You can’t use that time for housework or socializing or reading or catching up on ANYTHING. You just have to write.

            The trick lies in being mercenary, but not TOO mercenary. For example, you have to attend to basic hygiene. If you have a job apart from writing, you have to find a way to do it at a level that makes you proud. And I don’t want to hear any untended babies screaming from the next room. Find a way to write, insist on writing, and still be a functional and responsible human being. There are days when this will feel impossible, but you can do it.

            This past summer, I took a job as a writer for hire, and had to produce a three hundred page manuscript in six weeks. Literary cringing aside, that’s a lot of words in a short space of time – even more than it sounds, because I wanted to do a fast paced version of what I usually do over a couple years, which is a rough anything-goes draft, followed by a read over, corrected draft. So from the moment I hung up, having agreed to do the work, I knew that to make my deadline I would have to write a minimum of ten pages a day. My husband was traveling most of the summer, researching a book out West, leaving me as a single mom to our nine-year-old daughter. Every day I would take her to summer camp, go for a run with my dog before the brutal North Carolina heat took over in earnest, and then come home and write my minimum ten pages before it was time to pick her up. The camps varied, some of them eight hours, some six, some four. Not matter the time period allotted, I had to get ten pages written. The schedule had no room for error. It had no room, for example, on a mere four hour day camp day, for a child to come down with the stomach flu. When that did in fact happen, I had to narrow the world down to two tasks, and only two tasks: taking care of my sick kid, and writing my ten pages.  I set up camp on my bed, installing the pale child under the covers, with cold compresses, flat ginger ale, Puppy Place books and her DSI in easy reach. And I crawled in next to her with my computer, typing away, while she kept tabs on my progress. 

            “Are you done yet?”

            “Five more pages.” 

             Then four. Then three. And so on. I have to admit that as I write this I am conscious of not wanting to come across as a bad mother. Please be aware that I want to be a good mother about a thousand times more than I want to be a good writer. The trick that day was in finding a way to be both – a conscientious and caring parent who has work to do apart from parenting.

           The bright side to all this is that sometimes, rare times, you will find yourself between projects. Suddenly you will feel like a super hero as lawns get mowed, counters get wiped down, piles of laundry back down from their assault. Placing yourself in a perfect position to ignore everything for the foreseeable future, and do nothing else but write.

  1. Heid writes:


    I agree with Jen above–you are a hero! A funny one too…:)

  2. monica wood writes:

    Another thing I do is take my calendar for the next, say, three months, and arbitrarily mark off two or three two- or three-day rest periods. Then, if somebody asks me to do something–even something fun and festive–I can say no, I’m booked on that day.

  3. monica wood writes:

    This is great, Nina. For me the hardest thing is saying no to reading people’s stuff. But it’s so time-consuming, and I get asked almost every single day. Does anybody have a boilerplate response that doesn’t sound like a primadonna or Queen of Sheba?

  4. Jen Dotsey writes:

    not only do you *not* come across as a bad mother, you come across as a HERO. kids need all kinds of things from their mothers, but one of the things girls need most is to see that their mothers have inner lives and big dreams not directly connected to their love of family. being a committed artist and letting Hadley SEE your commitment — that’s a priceless gift. you guys are amazing.

    now stop reading blog comments and go write. 🙂

  5. George de Gramont writes:

    This is a classic! A writer has to be ruthless!