On Writing Too Much – The Practice of Presence


May 11, 2015 by Paula Reed Nancarrow

Joan Didion at home with her daughter Quintana Dunne, 1974Photography by Julian Wasser

Joan Didion at home with her daughter Quintana Dunne, 1974 Photography by Julian Wasser Courtesy AnOther

“Why did I write it down? In order to remember, of course, but exactly what was it I wanted to remember? How much of it actually happened? Did any of it? Why do I keep a notebook at all? It is easy to deceive oneself on all those scores. The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself. I suppose that it begins or does not begin in the cradle. Although I have felt compelled to write things down since I was five years old, I doubt that my daughter ever will, for she is a singularly blessed and accepting child, delighted with life exactly as life presents itself to her, unafraid to go to sleep and unafraid to wake up. Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.” Joan Didion, “On Keeping A Notebook.” 

Sometimes I think I write too much.

That seems like an odd thing to say, given that one of my goals this year was to find more time for creative work. By this I mean work that gratifies my inner artist. While the work I do as a grant writer demands a lot of creativity, I don’t need to “find time” for it. My life is already arranged around the day job; it is very deadline-driven, and by default it absorbs my most productive hours.

Setting a goal for creative practice seemed a good way of being intentional about something I value. My target was an average of 20 hours a week.

This target reinforced the idea that I was taking this work seriously, even if it did not have the obvious extrinsic benefits my day job did: being useful in the marketplace, contributing to the social good, paying my bills. The writing would involve journal work, blogging, memoir and poetry. (I list these in increasing order of difficulty – at least for me – where craft is concerned.) Developing my skills as a performance storyteller was somehow supposed to fit into those 20 hours as well.

I have other core values in my life besides work and creativity.

Homemaking, relationships, self-care. I’ve long used a time and task manager in an effort to give all of these areas their due. It’s an approach I learned from Stephen Covey, and while I’ve not been entirely happy with some of the cultural assumptions about gender roles that wove their way through his books, I’ve never found a better way to organize my life around what is important to me.

rabbit target

I have hit my 20-hour target perhaps a half dozen times since the beginning of the year.

My average is closer to 16 hours a week. Even that has not been easy, because I don’t work well in the evenings; my mind is more geared toward taking in information than it is analyzing, reflecting, synthesizing. Moreover, when I’ve spent all day staring into a computer screen, it really isn’t very healthy to spend all evening doing the same.

Often I do not get very far beyond the journal writing and the blog post.

The work it takes to write memoir and poetry is solitary, reflective and slow. It is no respecter of 20-hour weekly targets.

Many writers I admire say that discipline and persistence is more important than innate talent. This is a great comfort to those of us who doubt our innate talent, but know we can work till we drop. But I am coming to believe there is something else that is more important than discipline, persistence or talent.


For me, mindfulness is at the heart of creative practice.

Mindfulness requires me to be present to what is. It requires me to pay attention. To eat when I am hungry, and sleep when I am tired.

Someone who is trying to be disciplined can easily rationalize neglecting this simple precept. I am doing so now.

Mindfulness requires me to do the laundry when the laundry needs to be done, if I want to wear clean clothes. To go to the grocery store and buy nutritious food, and to prepare that food before it spoils, if I am to take care of my health. To organize my kitchen cupboards when I no longer know what is in them.

I did all of these things this weekend. They were not part of my creative practice. But they support it. I also made time for calling my parents, for wishing my mother a Happy Mother’s Day, and for having dinner with my own children.

Last weekend a friend suggested a spontaneous drive in the country.

It was a beautiful day and I almost turned him down. Anyone who turns down a spontaneous drive in the country on a beautiful day does not deserve to write poetry. No matter how many hours she puts in.




46 thoughts on “On Writing Too Much – The Practice of Presence

  1. angeldown15 says:

    Really interesting thoughts. Thank you! :D


  2. pinkmenotmom says:

    I can so very much relate to this – in my case, it’s the small bit of freelance writing I do for pay and my blogging that take up my writing time, even though I have a rough draft of a YA novel waiting in the wings, begging for attention. Not to mention the other ideas that are constantly percolating in the brain. It’s hard to carve out the time to focus on all of those things and still deal with the day-to-day, whether it be a f/t office job, caring for the kids or oneself, dealing w/ household responsibilities, remembering to breathe…while 16 hours a week may not be your ideal, I find that commitment pretty impressive!


  3. Kate Love says:

    I agree with you about the vital influx of life and awareness of it that mindfulness can bring. I’ve found that when I’m able to approach those ‘mundane’ tasks (laundry, cooking dinner, etc.) from a place of mindful gratitude the actions can become a sort of prayer for me. This helps when I know all of the projects I’ve walked away from to do these never ending chores (again).

    I also really dig that Joan Didion quote! Especially the end of it about the type of people who keep a notebook. I’ve gotten such confused looks from folks when I’ve pulled out my notebook to write down a random thought or overheard piece of a sentence. No matter. It feeds my spirit and so I keep carting around notebooks and writing in them.

    Thanks for this post.


    • Thank you for taking the time to comment, Kate. I also find – much like Julia Cameron reports in various Artist Way books – that cleaning a drawer or doing mending when I am blocked is not a form of procrastination, as many people think, but a totem. Often these physical acts results in clearing the block or stimulate a new line of thought.


  4. I love this post, Paula! Love it. I relate to what you wrote but also with Joan Didion’s quote. I had never read that so thank you much for sharing it.

    Great line: “Anyone who turns down a spontaneous drive in the country on a beautiful day does not deserve to write poetry. No matter how many hours she puts in.” :-D You should put together a compilation of ‘one-liners by Paula’. You have so many in your posts and comments that are brilliant.


    • Thanks, Sarah. Yes, I love the quotation, and finally got a chance to read the whole essay, which is also linked to. As far as great one (or in this case, two) liners, I think that’s part of the craft I’ve learned (and been taught) as a performance storyteller. Know when to leave the stage. ;-)

      Liked by 1 person

  5. jan says:

    What a fantastic picture! I agree that persistence is as important as talent. I get a lot of thinking done while walking or doing household chores which I think is very important to the writing process. Great post!


    • It is a gorgeous picture, isn’t it. And yes, there are ways to actively ruminate, and also ways to let go so that insights happen in their own time, and are not forced. Unfortunately when i am on deadline, I can be so obsessive-compulsive I often do not use those ways. I just stare at the screen and get my innards twisted.


  6. Judith Post says:

    Finding balance, for me, is hard. I can’t ever seem to get to EVERYTHING. Something always falls through the cracks–usually my exercise time. I’d rather write than do crunches and leg lifts–but oh, can I tell. I really enjoyed the Joan Didion piece. What an interesting to way to think of “the keepers of notebooks.” And I loved your last paragraph! Made me laugh.


  7. the joan didion quote you open with is great. i’ve stumbled across her work more than anyone else in the last three weeks, the universe must be trying to tell me something. i’ll let you know what is when i figure it out.

    i like the idea of structuring time to blog, write, and follow my creative impulses – i’m just having trouble structuring my inspiration.

    p.s. enjoyed your ‘dark side of being freshly pressed’ post b/c our experiences seemed quite similar as did our reactions.


  8. Annecdotist says:

    Maybe you need to reduce your target to 16 hours a week? Then you’ll get the satisfaction of hitting it more often.
    Slightly tangential, but your opening reminded me of why I no longer keep a diary – the problem wasn’t that I’d neglect to write in it but more that it became an obsession that ate up so much time. Different when you’re writing memoir, I know, but it’s made me very anti-journaling.


    • I think I need to get less OCD about targets, Anne. And there are timing when I wonder whether morning pages (a la Julia Cameron) are the right type of journaling for me to be doing. The idea is to dump everything on the page so your burdens are lifted, and not worry if it sounds whiny or dull. But I sometimes think it just makes me wallow, and I’d be better off making observations about people in train stations and the colors in sunsets and that sound my car makes that I can never describe in the shop.


  9. Anita Stout says:

    Say on sister! Writing is an important part of my life. Not my life. If I felt tied to a certain number of hours, my brain would cramp and refuse to put forth a single idea. I’m a free spirit but I write for free so I have a hard time finding a problem with that. I love what you write – when you write – if you write. Be happy.


    • Thanks for the compliment, Anita. I saw a lovely quotation from Stephen King’s on Writing on #wwwblogs today via @KidLiterature: “Writing is not life, but I think that sometimes it can be a way back to life.” Boy, does he get it.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. plaguedparents says:

    Great post. Perfect last paragraph.


  11. Norah says:

    Your last sentence says it all, Paula. We have to make time for ourselves in there; some space to slow down, reflect and enjoy. I know. I beat myself up about not getting enough writing done all the time, but some time away from the screen, guilt-free in the pleasant company of others is definitely re-energising. I hope you enjoyed the drive. :)


  12. suzgm says:

    This was a kind of brilliant observation that I’ve hardly thought about, being so wrapped up in trying to devote myself to craft…it’s such a difficult balance. Sometimes I think we make ourselves feel guilty for taking time to actually live our lives and experience the world, instead of working so hard to reproduce the world in a believable piece of literature.


  13. I do the same thing…set a creative goal, and not meet it. Or I schedule time to write fiction, and instead, I blog. Why do I do this? Because it’s easier? (no) Because I feel committed to building a platform, even if that platform isn’t in the genre of my fiction writing? (possibly) Because I’m not being mindful in the moment? (ah-ha!)

    You’re onto something here.


  14. […] of the week I found this site, where Christianity and mindfulness are connected.  I also found this post about writing,which gives useful insights.  This one is a blogger’s personal account of […]


  15. elainemansfield says:

    Thanks once again, Paula. I enjoy your posts every time. I love the Joan Didion quote, although I don’t entirely agree with it. I like remembering my life and won’t name it compulsive, especially now that I live it alone and don’t have someone to remember with and for me.

    I also love your last lines. Where is my spontaneity? I remember my husband wanting to go on more picnics during our brief northeast summers. My usual response? “I don’t have time. I already planned dinner and it doesn’t work for a picnic. Let’s do it tomorrow.” Remembering this makes me sad, but also teaches me something.

    I don’t write poetry, but can’t put writing my second book on an hourly schedule, especially while I’m fishing for the focus. I keep writing blogs and articles and hope it grows clearer. I have the discipline down. Now for that ride in the country.


    • I need to read more of Didion; the entire essay is a gem. I’m not sure it’s the remembering she thinks is compulsive, but the need to shape, to inform, to improve on the truth. I recognize that discontent within myself. But I also think she is focusing a little perversely on the negative, just to provoke us into awareness. This essay was written before the dual tragedy in her own life, and her own grief work. I don’t know how she feels about it now.

      It is hard to take those rides without others to prompt us. Hard for an introvert like me, at any rate. I was grateful for the excuse.


  16. Writing can be such a lonely and solitary task, and yet so fullfilling, supportive and interactive. It can also be very time consuming and obsessive. Mindfulness is a way of finding some balance between living and satisfying the inner writer in some of us. I could definitely do with more mindfulness, neglecting important elements of life that actually support the creative process. Otherwise, it’s false economy, isn’t it. Those things that need doing just eat at you and pile up whilst you write. I’m trying to tell myself to go slow and give life and living more attention, even at the expense of my writing.

    Another fab post! Hope you enjoyed your drive; I’m sure you did.


  17. sukisterling says:

    Do not question your creative talent because it is very much present. Question why your still at a day job! This should be your full time job! Love your posts.


  18. As writers, we tend to be so demanding of ourselves — we need to be mindful more often. It’s one of the reasons I enjoy writing haiku, because it cuts through all the chatter and helps to bring me back to the moment, to the now. It’s where all our power resides. :)


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  20. Ariel Bernstein says:

    Here I am, procrastinating writing the last chapter of a book I’ve been working on by looking at Twitter and I stumble on your wonderful post! Okay, back to writing I go. Unless someone offers to take me for a spontaneous drive in the country…


  21. […] Homemaking, relationships, self-care. I’ve long used a time and task manager in an effort to give all of these areas their due. It’s an approach I learned from Stephen Covey. Paula Reed Nancarrow, PaulaReedNancarrow.com […]


  22. […] Homemaking, relationships, self-care. I’ve long used a time and task manager in an effort to give all of these areas their due. It’s an approach I learned from Stephen Covey. Paula Reed Nancarrow, PaulaReedNancarrow.com […]


  23. Terry Tyler says:

    “It was a beautiful day and I almost turned him down. Anyone who turns down a spontaneous drive in the country on a beautiful day does not deserve to write poetry. No matter how many hours she puts in.”

    Love it!!! Wonderful words, Paula. The older I get, the more I see the value in this stuff. As for the talent vs hard work and discipline, I’ve written much about this myself. If you have no or very little talent, all the hard work and discipline in the world can never make you anything other than an ‘it was quite good’ type of writer. The ability to write sentences in such a way that a reader wants to keep on reading them is a talent with which one is born, and not something you can learn, buy, or produce by sticking at it. As with the talent for painting, singing, acting, whatever.

    Talent needs hard work and discipline to make it shine, but it has to be there in the first place. As such a successful blogger, perhaps you should congratulate yourself that it is, and got for more drives and walks! :)


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