Corner Post: “Gumption”

For me a writing life has always been determined by three things—money, time, and place.  And never have I had an abundance of all three.  The act of writing is itself a struggle, which I am always aware of when I sit down to corral words into a sequence that will stay with readers long after they have finished reading what I have written.  But it is also a struggle just to make a space where creating and revising stories can happen daily.  And for me, it must happen daily.  Otherwise, all I have are moments of writing too disconnected and too brief.

Writing is not about a lot of things.  Definitely it is not about the pursuit of money.  Granted, we have to have enough money to live on, but as I said in my article “Stop Time,” we should actively search for jobs that feed us creatively, instead of jobs that physically and mentally wear us down.  We also need jobs that demand less of our time.  But those kinds of jobs are rare unless we are able to just work twenty or thirty hours a week.  So the question we need to ask ourselves is this one—How much money do we have to have?  Because if we spend less time making money, we have more hours to write.  And it’s not just about a job choice.  It’s also about reducing monthly bills.  Money and time—life is spent pursuing one or the other, and at some juncture we have to choose which we value most.

A few years ago, the biggest part of my bill was rent.  Rent or a mortgage payment is probably the biggest part of your monthly bill, too.  So I resolved to find some cheap land and build a house cheaply on it, a house using recycled materials as much as possible, and to build the house by hand.  I’m not someone who has built a house before, who has those skills.  But as a friend told me, You’ve got gumption, and that counts for a lot.  We spend so much of our lives talking ourselves out of things, telling ourselves what we can’t do.  We have a list of reasons at the ready.  I’m not saying you should go out and build a house.  There is no one way to live a life.  But I am surprised at how many other ways life can be lived.  More than anything, it just takes being active.  It takes gumption.  It also takes looking at your bills and figuring out ways to reduce the amount of money you need to live on and still live well enough.  Ask yourself, What is well enough?  What’s essential?  What can you do without?  Can you live in a smaller place?  Can you cut your commute and do without a car, etc.?

The other reason I built a house and did so in a woods is because place gives me a grounding from which to write from.  I need a place that inspires me to write.  And what I have found is that for some people what inspires them to write may be totally different than what inspires their writing.  An author told me once that when she was ready to draft a poem, she did not want to look at breath-taking views.  Those were a distraction.  She needed bare walls, a coffee pot and a microwave.  Me, I need the view.  I grew up on a farm and those longleaf pines and swamps and fields are in my blood.  I’ve lived in cities, but I need trees, lots of trees, birds, land, and I need to sit down in the center of that world in order to write well.  Ask yourself that question, too—Where do you need to be in order to write?  Where do you write best?

And while we all need a place, a grounding, we need time even more.  In a practical sense, everything about writing is about finding the time to do it.  To only be able to spend a half hour a day drafting a story isn’t going to cut it in the long run.  It takes me a half hour just to get warmed up.  In grad school, a professor told my class to aim for at least two hours a day.  Write more if we could, but for him, two hours was all he could do well in a stretch.  He went on to add, no matter how many hours we wrote daily, it had to be the first priority, or there was a good chance it wouldn’t get done.  That’s why he wrote first thing in the morning.  That’s why I do the same.  Committing daily to the writing is the hard work, the necessary work.  It gives continuity to the revision process.  And as I’ve mentioned, that part of it, the actual composing, is just one part of the time needed.  We need time to reflect on what we’ve written.  We need time when the mind stays still.  We need the time of working with our hands, of doing something that feeds our imagination.  And we need rest.  We need the distance from the story, but not a distance filled with the internet and television.  We need a distance filled with nothing so the mind can recharge.  It’s just whenever I start to think about all the demands of time—all the different times you need daily just to write, just so stories can breathe—then I really understand how important it is to figure out the money part of the equation.  For it is an equation—money + place + time = writing.  It is an equation authors constantly have to balance.

A friend told me recently, we can create all the time in the world, but if we’re not driven to write or disciplined to write—for, as she said, those are the two different types of authors—then time is squandered.  I say this because at some point—and rather now than later—you need to ask yourself, What kind of writer are you?  Are you one that moves along the surface of things, one that values things over writing?  Or are you someone who cannot find enough time in the day to write, to imagine and reimagine stories, no matter how much time you have?  And if it is the latter, then you are the person I am speaking to in this essay.  And I am saying to you, Give up money as much as you can.  Find a place that inspires you to write.  Gather up as much time as this world will offer.

James Braziel

About James Braziel

James Braziel is the author of the novels Birmingham, 35 Miles and Snakeskin Road. His work has appeared in journals and newspapers including the New York Times. Currently, he teaches creative writing at the University of Alabama, Birmingham.