Today’s post is by Sharon Oard Warner, the author of Writing the Novella.
I make New Year’s resolutions. I don’t keep all of them—especially those that involve dieting—but a few have been lifechanging. Here and there, I’ve hit on something that made all the difference. Some forty years ago, for instance, I made this one: notice something nice, say something nice. Be it to strangers, family, or friends. On one long ago January day, I began voicing my admiration for all manner of things—gorgeous, dangly earrings in the ears of a waitress; my uncle’s resonant baritone; someone’s happy dog or baby; a perfect turn of phrase. You name it: over the years, I’ve liked it out loud and never once regretted doing so. Everyone loves a compliment.
But this post is about another resolution, one I made some thirty-three years ago, at a real turning point in my life. My older son was six and the younger one just toddling around the coffee table. This would have been the cusp of 1986. My husband and I had been out of graduate school for a couple of years—he’d finished a Ph.D. in psychology, and I’d completed an MA in English/Creative Writing. We were in the thick of things, and the dream I’d nurtured for most of my adult life—publishing a book of short stories and then a novel, teaching creative writing at the college level—seemed entirely out of reach.
Newly ensconced in Ames, Iowa, both of us were teaching semester to semester at Iowa State University. Noses to the grindstone, we were paying our dues and eking out a monthly payment on school loans. Foremost in our minds were our responsibilities to others: first family then students. Lots of students. I was teaching four classes of composition and professional writing a semester, and every spare moment went to grading an endless round of papers. Other people’s writing always took precedence over mine. Something had to give.
So, when New Year’s Eve of 1986 rolled around, I made a desperate resolution and framed it in the imperative: Get up an hour earlier than necessary six days a week and spend those sixty minutes writing short fiction. To make myself more accountable, I shared the plan with my husband and a couple of writing friends.
Good thing I did. Those first few weeks were hard as hell. I was rusty as a writer, and, worse yet, I was weary and uninspired. More than once, I fell asleep at the kitchen table. Only desperation kept me going. When the alarm went off, I rolled out of bed and tiptoed into the kitchen, anxious not to wake the kids. Fixed a cup of instant coffee and sat my butt in the chair.
Weeks passed, and I yawned a lot. But I also found some words and wrote them down. A month or two in, I saw progress: Words lined up in neat little sentences. Sentences lined up in neat little rows. Each morning, I began by reading what I’d written the day before. My first achievement was getting my writing life back.
I began by reworking a story-in-progress called “Christina’s World,” something I’d drafted in Louisiana, before the birth of my younger son. Inspired by Andrew Wyeth’s painting of the same name, the story takes its plot from the subject of the painting, a neighbor of Wyeth’s named Christina Olsen. I did my best by the story then sent it out to a literary magazine. It came back, and I sent it out again. Eventually, “Christina’s World” was published in Green Mountains Review. The editors nominated it for a Pushcart Prize. (If you’re wondering, yes: The painting, “Christina’s World” also inspired Christina Baker Kline’s 2017 novel, A Piece of the World.)
My next story was based on a dream, which makes sense, right? After all, I was writing in my pajamas. The dream story came together more quickly—I finished it in a matter of weeks. Titled “The Whole World at Once,” it would be published in the next year or two in Cleveland University’s magazine, Gamut. And it won the journal’s 10th Anniversary contest.
These new publications made me more competitive for jobs. I landed a visiting assistant professor job at Drake University in Des Moines, where I worked for five years. At Drake, I taught freshman comp—and creative writing. Around that time, I also joined the faculty at the University of Iowa’s Summer Writing Festival. And began reviewing books for the Kansas City Star which eventually led to writing the occasional In-Short review for the New York Times Book Review.
I don’t want to make this sound easy because it wasn’t. Along the way, I received two or three times as many rejections as acceptances. I am a slow writer, and in those days, editors insisted on a single-submission policy. Consulting my C.V., I see that I published one story in ’87 and thereafter averaged one new story in print every year until 1992. That’s the year New Rivers Press published my first book, Learning to Dance and Other Stories.
Because I was a regular book reviewer, my small-press story collection got more than its share of coverage, almost all of it positive. The high point was a review in the pages of Ms. Magazine by one of my favorite short story authors, Grace Paley. And a call from a New York City agent.
The trade-off, of course, was long-term sleep deprivation. My husband loves to tell people that I slept through an afternoon basketball game between Iowa State and Kansas. Thousands of screaming fans didn’t deter my snooze. For many years to come, I would doze through movies and plays, dance performances and concerts. No sooner had the lights dimmed than my chin hit my chest.
Do the math, and you’ll realize that it took seven years of early-morning writing to publish that book of stories, but one resolution, faithfully kept, changed the trajectory of my career. It made everything I’ve done since possible.
In 1993, I interviewed at the Modern Language Association Conference in Toronto for a tenure-track job at the University of New Mexico. During that interview, one of the female professors asked me this: “How do you plan to juggle family and teaching obligations with your own writing goals and the expectations of the University?” I guess you know my answer.
Not that it got me the job, of course. But the resolution did. Of that’s there’s no doubt. Since 1987, I’ve published five books: a short story collection, two novels, an edited anthology, and a craft book on writing the novella. Am I still getting up at 5:30 a.m.? Nope. I’m too old for that, and it’s no longer necessary. These days, I do my best work somewhere around 9 a.m.
Maybe you’re in the thick of things right now. Maybe you’ve got a baby and a job and any number of balls in the air. But you want to write; you’re dying to write. Then try your own version of this approach in 2022. Maybe you can carve out thirty minutes rather than an hour. That’s fine, better than fine. Once you’ve established the routine, once you’re writing on a regular schedule, you will be surprised by how much you accomplish—both at the desk and away. Daily walks or commutes will double as brainstorming sessions. One thing does lead to another.
No, you won’t be perfect at it. Neither was I. Here and there, you’ll miss a day or two or three. But don’t give up! If you love words, make time for them. Here, I think of that lovely line from the poet Mary Oliver, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?” Write it down.
Sharon Oard Warner is the author of two novels, a short story collection, an edited anthology of stories on AIDS, and the craft book Writing the Novella (University of New Mexico Press). Warner’s essays and articles have appeared in The AWP Chronicle, The Writer, Writer’s Digest, Studies in Short Fiction, Studies in the Novel and others. From 1999–2016, she founded and directed the Taos Summer Writers’ Conference, one of the largest such gatherings in the country. In recent years, she has been studying and writing feature-length screenplays. Warner is Professor Emerita of English Language & Literature at the University of New Mexico and Co-Chair for the D. H. Lawrence Ranch Initiatives.