The art of asking
The things that stop us in our tracks

Guarding the egg

Art by Carmen Bromfield Mason

“Be ruthless about protecting writing days, i.e., do not cave in to endless requests to have 'essential' and 'long overdue' meetings on those days. The funny thing is that, although writing has been my actual job for several years now, I still seem to have to fight for time in which to do it. Some people do not seem to grasp that I still have to sit down in peace and write the books, apparently believing that they pop up like mushrooms without my connivance. I must therefore guard the time allotted to writing as a Hungarian Horntail guards its firstborn egg.”  -  J.K. Rowling

This applies, I think, not only to writing, but to all creative work, and to working from home in general.

Your thoughts?

Hatching Fairy by Terri WindlingImages: The illustrations at the top of this post are "Working from Home" and "Dragon Pest" by the London-based illustrator & animator Carmen Bromfield-Mason, whose work I love. (The first drawing is a self portrait, with the artist's cats Kimberly and Titan.) The little sketch at the bottom is by me.


Somewhere people get the strange idea that any self-employed person only has to work when they want to and can take off any time they like. Alas! Also, I have to protect writing/working time from my own distractibility, which is quite fierce.

I love your sketch! Glad you had the "time".

I wake up at 2am to get a good 6-7 hours of creative time in each day before we go out to work as gardeners and the weekends are pretty much all studio time. I don't socialize much and my friends understand that my studio time is precious, often when Old Man Crow is coming home from a gig I am just waking up, he is a very understanding & encouraging man.
Here's a favourite reply when I asked an artist friend if she wanted to come along to one of Old Man Crow's gigs awhile back,
"I will not get to see Crow man pluck his stuff.

In another life I would, but in this one I'm an anti-social bitch who
uses every waking moment to paint or think
about what I'm going to paint next.

That's my idea of a good time.
Pathetic though it may sound."

I love the truth in her words, she works on 7 different paintings in oils at any given time, a huge inspiration, the mistress of the edge!

I so agree. It was easier for me to "guard the egg" when I had to commute to a rented studio. Somehow that seemed to make the painting / writing day more "legitimate," like going to the office. Now that I'm working from home again, it's much more difficult. There is no boss, no externally set daily schedule: I'm the boss and must enforce a schedule. And I find I must be firm in enforcing this not just against others, but myself. It's too easy to get into domestic mode when working at home; there are always things which need to be cleaned or fixed, or people to be phoned and letters written.

One issue is that people don't always realize that a lot of the creative work process involves experimenting, thinking, doodling, reading...things which seem like down time activities for others; things which can easily be interrupted. Another issue is the attitude that Creative Work is not Real Work. Writing, painting, making music, etc. are often seen as frivolous, less important, less valid than other work. A bankster has a real job, and artist not. Though as Jeanette Winterson so eloquently put it: "If we say art is a luxury, we might as well say that being human is a luxury."

Thanks for once again bringing up an interesting topic! I love the illustrations you've chosen to accompany it.

Now, back to work.

Marge Piercy wrote (in her memoir, Sleeping With Cats):

"From the time I arrived on the Cape, one of the things I chose explicitly was to put my writing first. Everything else in my life waxed and waned, but writing, I discovered during my restructuring, was my real core. Not any relationship. Not any love. Not any person. I had become more selfish and less accessible. I ceased to be the universal mommy of the tribe. I wanted to see people when I was done with my writing for the day, and not in the middle of my work time.”

Not everyone would agree with putting work over people, of course. Yet she still maintains many deep relationships (especially with her husband Ira, a fellow writer) -- but had reached a point in life where she needed to prioritize her work...and came from a generation where this was a still a shocking thing for a woman to do.

I like to use the (made-up) word self-full as the opposite to selfless, rather than selfish. Sometimes we need to be self-full.

And balancing the need for creative time and creative solitude with being a partner, parent, family member, friend, and community member, in addition to the demands of earning a living...oy, there's the rub.

Awww, thanks Cindy!

I recently turned freelance and as part of this, have set aside Fridays as my creative day for writing and painting... So far I've managed 3 out of 9 this year. Even though I have produced several paintings for an exhibition so far, I did it over weekends because I found myself allowing other work to encroach on that one precious day.

Although people love art, books and beautiful things, society as a whole doesn't value creativity...or at least doesn't understand it and what it takes to be creative. Creativity needs to be nurtured and although a fun and joyous experience, it also involves hard work and commitment. Plus there is a level of sacrifice involved, and strength needed to erect boundaries and maintain them. These things can make us appear both odd and other to society, so to break this assumption and appear normal we break our own commitment and allow the disruption...

However, if we were to educate society, would we also be dismantling the mystique of our work? Perhaps the only way is to privately commit to our creativity and outwardly appear magicians!

I think you've hit the nail on the head about the need for creative thinking time, Lynn. And I've realised that what I tend to do, to my detriment, is wait until I'm actually in bed at night to do that, because 'day-dreaming' any other time of the day seems like I'm being lazy and wasting time. And so I do my creative thinking when I should actually be sleeping. And I think I've been doing it ever since I was a kid, and so consequently, I now suffer from insomnia.

It's so hard to get past the feeling that you should be doing 'real' work. As silly as I know it is, I still feel like I've achieved something if I've spent the day cleaning the house and not done any creative work, but if I spend the day painting and at the end of it the dishes are still sitting in the sink (like I did yesterday), I feel like I've failed at some basic human requirement.

...the Internet being the biggest distraction for many writers these days, of course.

Ellen Kushner and I have decided that trying to write in an office with Internet access is like trying to write with a party going on in the next room. You can shut the door tight to block out the noise, but it's hard not to wonder if anything interesting is going on in there, or to resist the temptation to pop in for "just five minutes"...

There are some writers and artists (Zadie Smith comes to mind) who find it useful to keep their Internet access separate from their work space.

Having said that, it's time for me to get off the 'net and get back to work.

When you work at home people have the misconception that you must be lonely. The telephone rings constantly, emails keep popping up and if you turn your phone off you get knocking at your door. I like the fact that people care but a long stretch of alone time to work is essential!

Thank you so much for this quote-- exactly what I have been feeling this winter. I have the great fortune/curse of living at the base of a ski area. This winter has been a constant battle of deadlines and people trying to get me out to play on the mountain when all I really want to do is go for a long snowshoe with my dog in the early morning and then lock myself in the studio for the rest of the day. Somehow I end up feeling guilty for working and not skiing. That can't be right!

Oh yes.. lately it seems I need to keep stating that I am working full-time. Yes, only two days at school teaching, but the other three, if not four, I will be in the studio, and therefore, have late afternoons or evenings. But because I am "home" I receive requests to come visit for tea while I'm in the studio, or how about breakfast out?

The trouble is that sometimes I"M the one doing the requesting, because I work and work and then need a break. But I need to gauge this based on my creative flow, so a strict schedule doesn't always work, and then maybe I confuse people.

I've created what I call "a trellis" kind of schedule. I know the structure is there, and I can wind around it as the ebb and flow of my energy and nature need to. I mostly stick with it, but if I worked much later in the studio the day before, I might take a break the following day. There are certainly days when I actually NEED visual space from my work so I can see it with fresh eyes. But I'm straying here, I think the challenge for me is to have people understand that my "trellis schedule" is actually quite disciplined as it may not appear so to others. It is guided by my needs, and as Lynn says, what serves the work most, might be a walk in the forest or a drive to photograph the landscape.

I am a quilter and rug hooker with a studio in my home. As hard as I try to let people know that I do not answer the phone or the door when I am working in the morning, they forget. And sometimes I feel a mixture of resentment and guilt when I choose to keep working but know that if I let these feelings have precedence, the work will not get done. I decided last year to have two days "out", one for riding and another with a hooking group, which helps my work by seeing other people's and lets me socialize while still working. I feel this is a healthy compromise and try to say no to more outings. So far, it's working.

For me the problem isn't the interruptions of other people, but precisely the opposite. I find working from home can be very lonely and isolating, and if I don't see people for a long period of time my work and work-rate definitely suffers. Of course I see my partner in the evenings when she comes home from work, but the long desert of the day can sometimes be very trying, especially when the light levels are as low as they've been this winter. I go to see some artist/writer friends of mine once a week, but I've found this isn't enough and the rate of my output is definitely declining.

Does anyone else have this problem and if so has anyone found a solution?

While I cannot relate to the writing interuptions, beyond my dog deciding that she needs to go out every 30 minutes when I am at my desk, I did see the crazy expectations of family while I was working night shifts.

"How can you be asleep? It's Christmas! You are supposed to be awake with only one hour of sleep and enjoying the holiday with everyone!"

Several blurry holidays and mornings propped up by coffee resulted but I am thankfully no longer on nights.

My main writing time is early morning or during my lunch break at work however that keeps getting taken for "working lunches" with my coworkers which I dispise since my lunch time is for me to "get away" from the office, not sit there longer ;-)

I'm in the midst of a forced restructuring of my life. (Had I had a choice, it would have muddled along as it was.)

I think this Marge Piercy quote is what I needed to read, even though I am not of her generation. Something finally clicked. (As well as the internet with the party next door. LOL! Oh, that makes so much sense. And I'm off for 3 or so days of self-imposed internet exile.)

I have found through much trial and error that getting together with like-minded people who are basically in the same place doesn't work for me. What does work is teaching an enthusiastic person in my discipline new skills that not only relate to her/his work but provide me with new ways of looking at my art, thus inspiring us both. Being open to the other's style/needs seems to be a springboard for growth on both sides. Maybe zany, but it's fun.

An interesting idea and one I will definitely look into.

The man from Porlock will keep turning up at the most inopportune times.

Having worked night shift for years, I know just where you're coming from. Nobody ever seems to "get" the reality of working nights and sleeping during the day, particularly your friends and family. No you can't just stay up so you can do this or that. Mine finally got the message when I started calling them at 2 and 3 o'clock in the morning wanting them to chat or come over for lunch, and when they objected, I replied, but this is what you do to me when you call me during the day, when I'm trying to sleep.

I love your drawing Terri!
I try to hang fiercely to page 317 from Clarissa Pinkola Estes book 'Women who Run With The Wolves' where, on protecting creative time she cites how one artist banishes pollutants to creativity by hanging this sign to her gate:
"Do not disturb unless I have won the lottery or Jesus has been sighted on the Old Taos Highway"
There is a lot of other good advice there too. I live in the West Indies where we tend not to have doorbells but call loudly from the road when we want to communicate with someone. I lock myself into my little studio space, turn off the phone and the internet, but I can still hear the neighbour from time to time. She explains to callers "She's in the back" in a certain tone and probably a roll of the eyes, but this seems to suffice!

I too worked at night, a swing shift PBX (telephone) operator at a posh Nob Hill Hotel.
Even now, anybody who knows me knows I am not in my right mind until noon. There's
another thing about writing and the arts. A lot of time one has to be their own secretary,
publicist and event coordinator. Usually it is my cat who informs me it is time to take a
break. I have a huge stuffed mouse, so large cat can't knock it off, if I want to return to
my desk and Mac. He's in heaven when at last, he can have the chair.

Time in the studio is sacred indeed. I have to agree with the man who said that balance is key. I also find that when I have too much one or the other, my work suffers.

I love the Rowling quote-it resonates so deeply. I think my writing decided I should get up at 4 in the morning because the world, at least in my neck of the woods, seems a bit quieter and more still at that time. I write with pen and paper-that has been the real revolution in my writing life-directly typing onto a computer just does not work for me. It means I have to go back and type in the scribbles or have someone else do it-but the sensuality of pen, paper, and candlelight works for my inner writing-and not being on the computer does cut down on distractions-a lot!

It is so hard to give ourselves permission to "day-dream" which I believe to be extremely important - especially to people who create. I certainly find that when I don't spend enough time "day-dreaming" (which is too often the case) it puts me off balance and is counter productive to creativity. I do hope your insomnia doesn't cause too much trouble in terms of sleep deprivation. I've suffered from it from time to time in the past, but only for short spells. It can be *extremely* exasperating.

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