How to write on deadline when the world is in chaos, your house is imploding, and your kid is home from school
On the third day after schools are closed, my editor asks, politely, again, when I can send her my final revision—the one that’s three days late. I squint, for the gazillionth time, at the 6,000-word story I’ve been working on for a year.
In my left ear, two chain saws buzz outside my office window, where a crew is felling trees. In my right ear, the opening riff of “Purple Haze” whines from my son’s electric guitar, played in the faltering cadence of a twelve-year-old boy learning Hendrix via YouTube.
I lean into my computer, willing a cone of silence or a Jedi force field to materialize around me and my story. I have one more paragraph to fix. But that fix requires mental gymnastics: Geography. Chronology. Mileage. Math.
On a normal day, this should take minutes. But normal has left the building. “Lately things, they don’t seem the same,” Mr. Hendrix sings through the wall, and I wonder: Is it tomorrow or just the end of time?
Now, as the anthem of quarantine living assaults my brain in stereo, I stare at my prose, seeing alphabet soup, not knowing if I’m going up or down. Instead of impressing my editor with a lightning-quick revision, I whip out my phone, film the situation, and send her this video. I don’t like making excuses, but the facts can scream for themselves.
My editor, a fellow mom, replies simply: OMG.
This is around the time we discover a succession of structural problems with our house. It’s a parade of horribles so unfortunate as to be comical. Imagine a season of This Old House scripted by the writers of The Office.
It starts when my husband—whose coping mechanism in times of crisis is home improvement projects—decides to fix some steps on our deck. As he rips out the old ones, he notices the wooden pillars supporting the deck—and the second-story balcony—are rotten and about to fail.
My husband calls me down to share the despair, and I watch him extend a solitary, tentative finger to touch the wood as gently as one might wipe a tear from a newborn baby’s check. A chunk of wood disintegrates in a little puff of dust. “Don’t touch it again!” I scream, imagining a catastrophic deck-collapse worthy of memes and animated GIFs.
My husband presumes the rest of the deck is composting itself, so we’ll have to tear it all down and rebuild it. To save money, we’ll do the demolition ourselves. To his credit, my husband shoulders most of this work, while my son and I carry token armfuls of wood and broken concrete up the hill before pooping out.
The removal of the deck uncovers another great riddle: Why is the ground so wet and squishy?
Because the water main is broken.
We call a plumber. In investigating the squishy-ground problem, he discovers new problems indoors. Apparently our house was built with the Chinese drywall of plumbing. These pipes, known to corrode and burst, were the subject of a class-action lawsuit. Which we’ve missed by a couple of years. Homeowners insurance does not cover exploding pipes until they have, in fact, exploded. So we add to our growing list of expenses “replace all pipes in house.”
We refinance the house to afford this.
Neither the re-plumbing of the house nor the deck reconstruction can start until the broken water line is fixed. In the act of fixing the water main, the repair crew busts the gas line. As the smell of natural gas fills our home, my husband runs into my office, screaming, “We have to get out—NOW!”
We stand outside in the street in our socks as the fire trucks pull up, lights blazing. Neighbors emerge from their homes, drawn by the flashing lights and the smell of gas, which is permeating the neighborhood. We all stand there, watching invisible gas spew from the man-sized hole in the yard, like extras in The Hurt Locker. The fire marshal turns to me and says, “I wouldn’t start your car right now.”
In an hour, I have to do an interview that has previously been rescheduled. I don’t want to postpone it again, so I go, still dressed in pajama pants. At least they look like track pants. I have to borrow a car from my mother and a notebook from my source.
At the end of what I reasonably consider a long and sucky day, I go back home to find the morning crew still digging man-sized holes in my yard, searching for the elusive water line after the gas line has been fixed.
I stand beside one hole, my toes at eye-level with the man inside, and watch him shovel mud as viscous as wet cement. After offering him a snack and a drink, neither of which he needs, I ask him, “On a scale of one to ten, how does this rank on the sucky-day scale?” He pauses, leans on his shovel, and smiles a genuine smile. “Oh,” he says with a shrug, “it’s just about a three.”
I reassess my day. It hasn’t really been that long, or truly all that sucky. My edited assessment: inconvenient, expensive, and a gold mine of story material. Another silver lining: Unlimited opportunities to keep my husband busy, and therefore happy, and therefore out of my hair and my workspace. Downside: The symphony of construction—table saw, air compressor, many hammers, and occasional chainsaws—becomes my new writing soundtrack.
“Earplugs,” suggests a writer-friend. “Ambient music.”
The next day, as I sit at my computer, playing ambient music on noise-cancelling headphones, I feel a hot and humid sensation on the back of my neck. It’s my son, literally breathing down it. Just to see if I’ll notice. (I do.)
“The great enemy of writing is being interrupted by other people,” says the writer Joyce Carol Oates. “Your worst enemy will have your most beloved face.”
I’ve worked from home for seven years, one of which was spent simultaneously nursing a bed-ridden patient. Before that, I spent 180 days a year on the road for as a travel writer. Both jobs required getting things done in suboptimal conditions. I’ve typed features in tents, filed stories from summits, and met deadlines in a hospital room. I once thumbed a whole essay on a not-so-smart phone in a YMCA parking lot.
But this is harder. Though my daily routine as a freelance writer hasn’t changed dramatically, I am struggling more than ever to stay focused, productive, sane.
Maybe it’s the lingering low-grade anxiety, which hovers at a level that makes it easy to underestimate its insidious effect. It’s like the chlorine smell of an indoor pool. After a while, it seems to disappear—until you go outside and breathe fresh air.
Or maybe it’s that my most beloved face has a super secret weapon. My son, who is not quite a teenager, comes into my office several times a day and throws his arms around my neck. Usually it’s disguised as a head-lock or a noogie. Or an impersonation of Dwight from The Office cracking imaginary eggs on my head. But I recognize the love language of pre-adolescent boys. And son-hugs are my kryptonite.
But while much of the world has altered its pace, my deadlines have not. In fact, they have somehow accelerated. How can it be that just before this pandemic I signed a book contract with a deadline in three beleaguered months?
This thought is drowned out by the piercing wail of a bugling wanna-be elk.
(Ok, not really. That was actually my writing soundtrack last fall.)
“I need a monastery!” I cry in despair to a friend. She tells me about St. Gertrude’s, a Catholic monastery in Cottonwood, Idaho that generously provides food and lodging to artists and writers-in-residence.
The application requires an essay, which reads a lot like this one. I note in the essay that in the course of writing it I am interrupted no fewer than 15 20 25 times. Sensing my urgency, Sister Theresa expedites the process and asks when I can come. I tell her I can be packed and on the road in less than 24 hours.
Just before I’m set to depart, Sister Theresa shares some deflating but not unexpected news: county health officials have advised them to close the convent to outsiders.
I’m lamenting this turn of events to a friend, a scientist who is also a writer, when he responds with an unexpected and generous offer:
“My family has a cabin in McCall. You’re welcome to go there and write.”
In the last sliver of time before mandatory lockdown, I lock myself down in his cabin. I pack books, a laptop, sticky-notes, a printer, index cards, an acoustic guitar, enough food for 10 days, four bottles of wine, and a 1940s Royal Quiet Deluxe typewriter.
Ensconced in monastic solitude, I will myself to forget that the world as we know it may never be the same. I don’t watch TV or check online news. My husband phones in updates. My son plays me Hendrix on FaceTime. Otherwise, I stay in my writing cocoon.
In 10 days, I finish that 6,000-word feature and send it out into the world. I publish a second story, write a third, map out the structure of the book, and write a few thousand words of manuscript. I’ve heard that every time you’re interrupted, it takes 20 minutes to “get back in” to the writing. Without constant interruption, my brain feels like it’s swimming in some performance-enhancing drug.
On breaks, I make snow ice cream, type long-overdue letters, and practice wheelies in the snow. At night I sip wine with a home-cooked meal, build a fire, and play my guitar. My birthday comes and goes—no presents, no cake, no worries. Not even the 6.5 earthquake can shake me out of this joyful fugue.
When it’s time to come home, I feel like an over-worked mom who has just spent 10 days at an all-inclusive resort spa. (I just made that up. Do such places exist?)
I come home to no less chaos in a house that continues to be a comedy of horrors. The corroding pipes are still ticking in the walls. We’re still waiting for the county to dig up our yard with a backhoe. The half-demolished deck still mocks us every day, though the worker who fell off it, carried to the ambulance on a stretcher, in a neck brace, is—thank God—okay, suffering a sore shoulder but no permanent damage. I have never felt so thankful.
The world is still weird. There is still not a leaf of Charmin to be found in any store. The shelves are still devoid of pasta. Jimi Hendrix still rattles my walls, and the table saw still serenades me through the floor. But somehow, the cabin mojo stays with me.
Like the fence my husband is building, one cedar board at a time, my stories are gradually taking shape, one sentence at a time. Some days the words feel like cinder blocks. But books and houses don’t build themselves.
As I finish this essay, my son barrels into my office. Reading over my shoulder, he laughs at his cameos, gives me a noogie, and says, “That sounds EXACTLY like a boy my age!”
‘Scuse me, while I kiss this guy.
“I recently re-listened to Pat Conroy’s Prince of Tides on Audible, and it has one of the most amazing voice-actors I’ve ever heard. And Conroy’s writing is every bit as beautiful as I remembered. ”
Kim Cross is the New York Times best-selling author of What Stands in a Storm: A True Story of Love and Resilience in the Worst Superstorm in History. She teaches Creative Nonfiction at Boise State and writing workshops at The Cabin. Listen to her geek out about Taoism, Google Earth as a reporting tool, and why (spoiler alert) she structured a story as a palindrome on this episode of Gangrey: The Podcast.