Thursday, November 18, 2010

Dori Ostermiller talks about time and its discontents

Dori Ostermiller, the author of the shatteringly good novel, Outside the Ordinary World talks about the good and bad news about time.

Last week, in preparation for speaking on a panel about time management, I started chatting up my writing buddies, and discovered some good and bad news about this time issue… The bad news, my friends, is that you probably won’t ever have more time than you do now. During my informal interviews, I found that pretty much everyone is insanely overscheduled, regardless of numbers of offspring, levels of employment or income… (well, with the exception of two retirees in their 80’s). There seems to be an osmotic pressure ruling our hours: got a free space in your week? Something will inevitably flow in to fill it up.

The good news, though, is that needing lots of time to write is actually a myth. I know this, because in 1999, I won a $12,500 Massachusetts Cultural Council grant. I was a part-time working mom, writing grants 15 hours a week, for 15 bucks an hour, and the grant would allow me a long-coveted 6-month leave—enough time, I figured, to finally dust off my neglected manuscript and complete the book.

Somehow, the pressure to perform put me off my game. Terrified of failing, I ran lots of errands during my fifteen hours, sorted through stacks of baby clothes... In my defense, I did finish a chapter or two. I think I finally sent out birth announcements, too, though my daughter was nearly two and everyone was quite aware of her existence. Long story short, having extra time didn't solve my writing dilemma!

When I turned 40 and realized I no longer had unlimited swaths of time before me, I got determined. Or maybe desperate. I now had two kids and was teaching and running a writing studio—my time more taxed than ever. But if I didn’t finish the book soon, I’d have to admit that writing was a silly pipedream, like learning to speak fluent Chinese or reading the complete works of Hegel.

Julia Cameron, in her book The Right to Write, says, “The trick to finding writing time is to make time in the life you’ve already got. Stop imagining some other life as a ‘real’ writer’s life.” Once we learn to write from the sheer love of it, she says, there’s always enough time, but it must sometimes be stolen, like a kiss between lovers on the run… While finishing Outside the Ordinary World, I somehow found the will to rise at 5 am, four times a week, though I'm allergic to mornings… I also learned to utilize that “waiting mother” time—during piano lessons, dentist’s appointment, soccer games—perhaps the most abundant untapped resource we moms have access to! (I once completed a chapter during a 40-minute dance practice).

And when these stolen moments didn’t feel like they were adding up to a publishable novel, I swiped some weekends: every six weeks I’d spirit away to a writer’s retreat in Ashfield and shut myself in for 3 days at a stretch—I was that hungry for silence and solitude. Did I feel guilty leaving my family? Yes! So I channeled that angst into the novel; I created a fictional affair. I figured that was a much better deal for my husband, anyways...

Speaking of affairs, Cameron also likes to point out that the busiest, most important woman in the world can still find time for someone she's in love with. If something is important enough, we do find a way.

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