The Writer’s Life: Reading, Writing, Living

Originally posted July 10, 2013

Last summer, I found myself in the unique position of

A.  Reading about the writing life—spending every spare moment with Michael Sims’ book The Story of Charlotte’s Web, about E.B. White.

B.   Writing about the writing life—drafting an essay describing how and when Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote Pioneer Girl.

C.  And living a writer’s life—corresponding with my editor and literary agent, reviewing manuscripts from other writers, and balancing my writing responsibilities against the inevitable chores of cooking supper, paying bills, doing laundry walking the dogs, and weeding the garden.  

Occasionally, all this writerly reading, writing, and living seemed to come together especially when I stumbled across this line from Sims’ book about White’s editors:  “When Virginia Kirkus retired in 1936, her former assistant Ida Louise Raymond, replaced her and took [Ursula] Nordstrom along as an assistant editor.  Soon, amid messy offices, she was dealing with such writers as Laura Ingalls Wilder.”  [Sims, 152.]   My reading and writing worlds had collided:  I had just reread Xerox copies of Kirkus’s, Raymond’s and Nordstrom’s editorial letters to Laura Ingalls Wilder.  It was surprising and inspiring to feel this bond springing from the literary past, spilling across the pages of Sims’ book, and taking shape in my own messy office. 

I finished my work on Pioneer Girl in April.  True, I’m still answering questions from my editor about Wilder’s writing life, revising a line for the book here and there, and contributing blogs to the Pioneer Girl Web site(http://pioneergirlproject.org.), but I’ve cleared most of the Wilder files from my office and am ready to start anew.  But what to write next?  Where will my writing life take me?  I’m not sure yet, but I know this for certain:  For now, I don’t want to share my writing life with the ghosts of other writers.  I want to write my own stories again.  

James Webb Young, one of my favorite writers on the creative process, believed that creativity springs from connections made between seemingly unrelated things.  And he also believed that living life fully, experiencing all we can from the books we read, the music we hear, the plays and movies we see, the conversations we overhear, the weeds we pull from our gardens—these things help us make those rare and elusive creative connections.  So in May, I packed my bags for England—not to write, not to research, not to teach—but to live life fully and try to make connections between seemingly unrelated things.

It was a magical trip—three plays in four days, the beauty of the Cotswolds, William Morris’s country home, Stonehenge, Avebury, the Rollright Stones.  I didn’t want to come home, but when I did, I began making notes to myself about three different projects.  That’s right, three projects-- two historical novels and a nonfiction picture book, something I’ve never attempted before.  

I still haven’t decided which project will occupy my full attention throughout the rest of the year, but I will trust in James Webb Young again, who also maintained that our unconscious minds are at work on creative dilemmas even when our conscious minds aren’t.  So I’ll give my unconscious, artistic self free rein and live my own writing life this summer, waiting for that intoxicating Eureka! moment when a cast of characters begins speaking to me so insistently thatI can’t possibly ignore them or their story.    

Holly Atkinson