Track practice. An hour and a half. A metal picnic table. Cold enough for hats and gloves, hot enough for shorts and flip-flops. Other parents talking about football and summer camps and the new high school.
Tennis practice. Second-story bleachers. Other parents scattered around, looking at phones or their children, who are learning to serve, to rush the net, to move their feet. Every now and then an intake of breath and a ball bounces into this upper deck. I save my document often.
Lunch break. The cafeteria-style section of Wegman’s grocery store, the overpriced pub in the hotel down the street from my office, the burrito place, the burger place, the salad place, the pho place. Me and my laptop and an hour to eat and write, 40 minutes if you count the drive, a chance to move this story along, just get words down, word count, produce content that may eventually be improved enough to be part of a novel. Maybe.
The bookstore coffee shop. Saturday afternoons. I can write for an hour, an hour and a half, and then I walk around, look at books, get another coffee, move to something else. I have lost the muscles that used to let me write for extended blocks of time, long afternoons or evenings, three or four hours. I am 47, 48, 49, 50. I have a full-time job and mortgage and a 9-, 10-, 11-, 12-year-old son.
This is how I wrote my new book—in 15-minute or half-hour or hourlong sessions of forcing out words between doing other things. These in-betweens are the only time I have.
This is not how I thought books were written when I was a young person dreaming of becoming a writer, or when I was a student learning about other writers, or 20 years ago when I was first trying to actually be a writer. Then, I had what now seem like comically long stretches of time laying out before me, impossibly open weekend days or evenings with little to attend to other than a story or a novel or the idea that I should be working on the same.
Then a whole bunch of stuff happened and all of a sudden I was a 45-year-old web manager with a young son and wife and too much on my Visa bill and a life full of other things that required my attention. All of a sudden nights were busy, days were busier, and the idea that some kind of ideal writing condition would one day occur became laughable.
So: the in-betweens. Practices and lunches and a half hour at the end of the night, at the beginning of the day, as I’m waiting in the doctor’s office or the airport or the Chinese takeout place.
I didn’t invent this, and over the past decade I’ve come to realize this is how a lot of us get work done. It’s not romantic, and it doesn’t feel particularly productive. Most of the time, sitting at these sports practices, I feel like an antisocial crackpot. I live in a small town somewhat obsessed with sports and it’s not great to feel like that, to be that person with the headphones on clacking away at a laptop while everybody else is chatting or cheering their kids on. It’s not great to turn down lunch invitations to sit by yourself and work away on something that may never become anything more than a Word file on your computer.
Few of the people around me will ever know that my Word file eventually did turn into a book, but they may remember that I was holed up by myself, my face screwing up in disgust every now and then as I put shitty word after shitty word to make shitty sentences and shitty paragraphs. They may remember that Ben’s Daddy was that one that sat over there all by himself with his little computer, tapping away by himself. In the back of my mind I used to think that maybe they were looking at me and wondering what I was working on, that they would see me hunched over the computer and think of Stephen King or Flannery O’Connor, of the hard work and sacrifice that goes into producing art, but I’m pretty sure they were looking at me and thinking, look at that asshole.
Most of the time, that’s how I felt, too, and I know a lot of working people or parents or working parents who feel this same way, like we have five jobs and are doing really shitty at every single one, all the time. Working this way doesn’t feel as good as the scene I imagined when I was 15 or 28: me at a desk, perhaps on a lake, a bottle of bourbon sitting off to the side, while Jann Wenner or my agent or the people from the publisher pace in their skyscrapers in New York, waiting for me to finish my masterwork, my Exile on Main Street or The Last Good Kiss or Jesus’ Son.
Now I know better, and all of that seems ridiculous. I know I wrote a story bit by bit, 15 minutes here, two hundred words there, holed up in stolen moments ignoring the fact that lots of things were going on around me. Ignoring, most of all, the fact that I’ll never have those golden blank days stretched out in front of me, a giant desk in a country house with nothing to do but write. Ignoring all of that to see only those 40 minutes that were right in front of me right at that moment.
It feels shitty, most of the time, moving things along in these bites of time, stolen moments in between other things. Eventually, though, you cobble enough of them together and you can make something that maybe you can turn into something better, and then you can find enough stolen moments to turn that thing into something good. Driving at night with headlights on, as the saying goes, you can only see a few feet in front of you, but you can get all the way home.
The YMCA. Lots of naked men walking back and forth as I sit here typing away on the bench furthest from the showers. I can hear my son laughing, goofing off with the kids from his swim lesson. Me, a dad, a husband, a guy with a full-time job, a writer who is just trying to scratch out some shitty words one post-swim-lesson shower at a time, finishing an essay.