A Slice of the Writing Life 3/17/15

slice of life

I’ve set aside an hour and a half to write this slice. I’m a slow writer. Once I figure out what I’m doing, I might draft in a white-hot fury of typing, but it may well take an hour or more to find the beginning.

And that’s for the story I already know I want to tell. It’s a piece about my son coming home an hour late. I’ve been thinking about this piece for several days. But when I sit down to write it, it gets shifty. I can’t pin it down anymore. There are a lot of ways in, and I can’t find the right one.

I spend forty minutes trying to find the first sentence. I try out forty or fifty possibilities, most of them very slight variations of each other. I’m not sure anyone but me could even feel the difference in pace and pause these slight rewrites create. I try to make myself keep going, jump into the middle, come back to the beginning, but I have to have the first sentence before I can keep going. The right first sentence unlocks the rest of the piece for me.

I have nothing but fragments to show for forty minutes of writing. I decide I can’t possibly tell the story I want to tell in the amount of time I have left, so I start a different story, one that feels shorter and easier to write. My son’s anxiety about turning eighteen and officially becoming an adult. We’ve been working on this fear for months now, and this weekend I finally cracked it. I love it when I find the words that shift him from fighting to healing. I want to write that moment when he told me he thought he should stay here until he’s twenty-one. Twenty-one has become the new refrain in our house. I find the beginning on the first pass, a little snippet of dialogue from Saturday.

I start writing that piece and it comes easily but it’s not as interesting to me as I thought it was going to be. I’m not discovering anything in the writing. It’s perfectly nice, but it doesn’t feel necessary to me. Still, I’m happy thinking I can finish it and hit publish before I teach my first class at 12:30.

And then suddenly without warning there is the first sentence I was looking for earlier. It’s about anger, and I don’t know where it comes from. I don’t exactly hear it in my head. It seems to come out my fingertips all on its own. But it’s a sentence about anger. The coming home late piece isn’t about being angry.

I am not returning to the coming home late piece. I don’t have time to write it. But that first sentence won’t leave me alone. Another sentence comes into my head. Another. About anger. The coming home late piece is about anger. My fingers are flying across the keys. I look at the clock. I’ve got a meeting on campus in ten minutes and I’m still across town at the coffee shop. But the piece demands to be written.

I’m writing in my head as I drive to work. I’m writing as the student I’m meeting with comes into my office. I do stop long enough to listen to her concerns and explain how we’ll find a solution. I don’t exactly hurry her out the door, but I’m writing again before she even leaves my office.

I do stop to teach my classes, but I bring my computer with me and when my students are working in small groups, I write.

I write on and off all day. I’m still writing. For much of the day, I write fast to be able to hit publish while it’s still Tuesday.

But now the piece is about seven pages too long to be a slice. What is it? I don’t know. But it’s no longer a slice.

And I don’t have a slice. I’ve spent the entire day writing and I don’t have a slice. I am not skipping a Tuesday slice in the month of March.

I open a new box on my blog and start writing.

I’ve set aside an hour and a half to write this slice.







27 responses to “A Slice of the Writing Life 3/17/15”

  1. Deb Day (@mrsday75) Avatar

    I love how this slice went actually. You know what you want to say…it’s just too long, too much. I’ve had those days.But look what you did instead. Wrote a great slice about the struggles of a writer!

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      Thanks, Deb! I was so irritated when I’d done all that writing and still had no slice. Never mind that I have a whole essay! I wanted a slice for Tuesday!

  2. smcninch Avatar

    I’m right there with you, Elisabeth! Sometimes I don’t know what to write because what is itching to come out is to hard for me to write at the moment. I too have a difficult story bubbling just under the surface and I am hoping I will have the grace of time soon to let it flow. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      I love working on difficult stories. They really challenge me as a writer just in terms of the technique and skill required to tell the story in the way I want, and writing the story usually helps me process and understand it and myself better. Win-win! I hope that you will be able to begin working on yours soon. The repetition of the final line is a nod to The Outsiders–I loved that move the first time I read the ending of that book when I was 10 yrs old.

  3. smcninch Avatar

    P.S. I forgot to say I loved your technique of repeating the first sentence at the end of your bit. Made the whole slice come full circle!

  4. spiffygryphy Avatar

    I love this slice. It feels real to me. I write as a hobby, and there are times I won’t write for weeks (or more) because even though I know the story, know where it’s going, I can’t start because I don’t know the beginning.

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      I talk a lot with my composition students (I teach freshman comp as part of my teaching load) about percolation time. They think they’re procrastinating, but actually that time spent away from the computer thinking about a piece and letting it roll around in your head before you start is incredibly valuable and necessary. I do a lot of my writing when I’m not actually physically writing.

      1. spiffygryphy Avatar

        Same for me with college recommendation letters and other aspects of writing. So much easier if I let my subconscious do part of the work first.

  5. Lori Van Hoesen Avatar

    It’s what we hope for when we have our students write every day, just a little bit, in writer’s notebooks. Sometimes you get more than you bargained for, and isn’t that wonderful? Thanks for sharing your story!

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      I love this idea of sometimes getting more than you bargained for in a piece of writing. Yes, that really is a wonderful writing day when that happens, when a piece surprises you and takes off in a direction you didn’t expect.

  6. carriegelson Avatar

    When we finally get to have that coffee, I would like to book at least 3 hours. Just putting that out there now. We can get to dinner negotiations after that 🙂 Love getting a sneak peek into your writing life.

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      A big yes to the 3 hr coffee. We have so much to talk about.

  7. ambogard Avatar

    I love how raw your post turned out to be! This actually is inspiring me to share this type of experience with my students who are doing the slice of life challenge. I think it’d be interesting to see how they write, how long, what does it feel like, what are their challenges, etc. Thank you for your inspiration!

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      I like reading about other writers’ processes. My students always think something is wrong with them because their process doesn’t match some idealized version of writing they have in their head–you know, where it comes easily and perfectly the very first time and sitting down to write is such bliss.

  8. jodimahoney Avatar

    This is brilliant and honest and emotional all at the same time. Save the other piece – for it is part of you and your NOW. Maybe tomorrow there will be a part of those seven pages that you will pull for your slice.
    Your raw emotion and vulnerability are admirable and inviting.

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      Thank you for visiting and commenting! I’m glad I was able to find a slice in my day after all.

  9. […] was inspired by Elisabeth Ellington’s post where she shares about her writing life. I loved how vulnerable she was and how she was opening up […]

  10. readingtothecore Avatar

    This slice is so reassuring to me. I’m so thankful to know I’m not the only person with this problem. I love that you persevered and found the line you were looking for AND a slice.

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      I think this is one reason I love reading about other writers’ processes. It is truly reassuring to know that others experience the same struggles and surprises in their writing lives.

  11. Morgan Avatar

    I LOVE this! You have such a way with words. I was immediately drawn in at all the ways you wrote about the way you seek out that first sentence. You captivated me with the way the slice you planned wasn’t about anger until it actually was. And I love the way you described how you wrote the piece all day long, without even putting words to paper…yet. This is such an honest piece and I am drawn in at every turn! Thank you! You made my night!

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      Thank you for such a kind comment! It’s funny because I hadn’t even realized how I root around obsessively for that first sentence that unlocks a piece until I started writing this slice and reflected on how I spent the hour and a half I’d dedicated to writing. Writing about writing turns out to be revelatory even to the writer!

  12. kellerdustin Avatar

    I’ll take care of dinner…

    Catharses of heart spills out quick, unabashed and raw… The disconnect of harmony is best resolved through an inner discourse …your writing. Hopefully, your husband is a good sounding board to your thoughts.

    ps. My wife almost broke off our relationship when she discovered my inability to ‘write’…after 20 years im not much better, unless I’m writing from my heart.

    Dustin (Carrie’s husband- just so the ‘dinner’ comment doesn’t freek you out!)

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      A comment from Carrie’s husband!!!!! Hi Dustin! I’m very interested in how we write stories about experiences that are raw and agonizing and unresolved in a way that mediates but still conveys those experiences. My tendency is always to take too much of an emotional distance, to intellectualize, to cover the feelings with convoluted sentences, to be mannered and at least a little bit pretentious. I’m always so happy when I get comments on a slice about how raw and vulnerable it is, because I have to work very hard as a writer and a human being for that effect!

  13. Tara Smith Avatar

    I’ve always loved the honesty of your writing, and this slice is no exception. I do this, too – follow the trail of a thought into writing, thinking, fighting for words, not writing, and then writing long…so I have a writing space just for that. Good for you that you have a place for such writing, too.

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      I always think of that line from William Stafford–“there’s a thread you follow.” And that’s really why I write, to follow that “trail of thought into writing” and see what happens. I love it when something unexpected finds me.

  14. Carol Avatar

    I can so relate! That first sentence is absolutely critical and I will sit there forever, waiting for it to come! I’d love to read the seven-page story!

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