• Melissa Olson

My seething jealousy of Washington Irving


It might sound weird, but I’ve had a recurring daydream about being a wealthy male novelist (preferably in the 1800s), with oodles of free time, and someone else doing the shopping, cooking, cleaning, etc.

Oh to be Washington Irving, whose older brother "decided that a trip to Europe might give the aspiring writer some direction, so he financed the voyage," according to ThoughtCo.com. Irving spent two full years touring Europe, mining writing material. Day-dreaming aside, the reality is that I rarely get more than a few stolen hours to write each week.

Most writers I know have day jobs, kids, and many of us have parents we are helping care for in some way or another. I’ve met writers who get up at 5 a.m. to write for an hour before heading off to work, and others who write late into the night.

As Henry David Thoreau said, “The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.” It helps to know that Thoreau, at least, was a factory worker, repairman, tutor and gardener - writing on the side.

Over the past dozen years, I’ve been way-laid and thrown off track more times than I can count. Every writer and artist has to ask themselves what they are willing to sacrifice and what they will not.

Sandwiched…

In the same month, when Steve and I were in our late twenties, both of his parents were diagnosed with debilitating health conditions. My mother-in-law first developed COPD and then lung cancer, which took her life when Leah was one. Steve’s dad had diabetes and, over the course of 15 years, he lost both of his legs, much of his vision, kidney function and had heart failure. My father-in-law passed away two years ago.

My dad passed away nearly four years ago, after a traumatic fall which broke his spine and accelerated his heart failure. My mom was diagnosed with Parkinson’s when Leah was little. She now needs full-time nursing care in a home about an hour and a half away. I’ve recently read that one in eight Americans between the ages of 40-60 are caring for at least one parent.

Sacrifice and Selfishness…

Steve and I, carting Leah along, often found ourselves at separate hospitals with different parents on the same day. Sometimes, it felt like my life and the stress that comes with care-giving, was reeling out of control. For the sake my sanity and my family, my writing goals often took a back seat.

Countless times, I would start to pick up some steam on a new story or revision when a health crisis would derail my work. Over the years, though, I’ve learned to better balance my time, to be in the moment when I’m with my mom or my daughter, at work, and even when I’m writing. Though it can feel selfish, I’ve learned to make more time for my writing, no matter what is happening around me.

The one thing that kept me going in my most stressful times was my awesome critique group. For seven years, we met monthly and the group shaped my writing beyond anything I could have accomplished by myself. It was the catalyst that pushed me to complete more than 50 short stories, children’s books, creative non-fiction pieces, poems and articles. That’s why it was so hard to admit when it was time to move on.

What works, what doesn’t…

There came a point when coming up with new work to share with my writing group became less of a pleasure and more a chore. Something had to give, especially after I increased my work hours to 30 a week. I had to reevaluate what brought me joy, and take a hard look at what was holding me back from reaching my writing goals. So, after seven wonderful years, I decided to quit the critique group.

Making that decision was hard, but once I made it, it was freeing. It’s crazy, looking back, how much pressure I was putting on myself. I also made the decision to quit querying and to focus solely on the grueling/exhilarating task of revising my novel – The Life-Dividing Days.

I poured everything I’ve learned over the course of the past 15 years into getting my novel into the best shape I could. And, most importantly, I simplified my end goal to this: I wanted to be able to say, “It’s finished and I’m proud of it.”

One little goal at a time…

Now, I’m purely focused on finding a literary agent and marketing my other pieces. I’m set on giving my novel the best chance I can. I’ve made a lot more progress focusing on smaller goals – like writing at least one blog piece per month.

And I’m very happy to say that I’m back to enjoying the journey.


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