Writing in the Margins of a Busy Life by Jeff Zentner

The Serpent King
Goodbye Days

There are two tensions always at play in my life: the desire to create and the desire for material security. I’m not a Bohemian type personality who can cast cares to the wind and wait for a songbird to bring me the rent check through the window while I paint. If I don’t have material security, I obsess about fixing that problem (and I’m diagnosed OCD, so when I get on a thought track, I really get on a thought track) to such an extent that creativity takes not just a back seat—it gets bound and gagged and put in the trunk.

Which means that for me to create, I have to maintain a day job that proves for my material necessities. Which means that I have to really scratch and claw back the time for my creative endeavors and guard it like a dog guarding its food bowl. Which means that I write in some fairly unconventional ways. A lot of people imagine writers tapping out novels while sitting pensively in a gazebo, overlooking a lake, or sitting at a big oak desk, smoking a pipe, a couple of fingers of bourbon in a glass, surrounded by books.

My writing space looks a little different from that. For my first three novels (one unpublished), my writing space was the number 5 bus going downtown from West Nashville. I would get on the bus, find my seat (I didn’t always even get to sit in the same seat), hunker down, and start tapping away on my iPhone, using Google Docs. Between 70 and 80 percent of the drafting on these novels took place on my iPhone, using my right thumb, on a bus full of people. You learn to tune out distractions. Sometimes including your stop. Occasionally, when you’re writing difficult scenes (everyone who’s read The Serpent King knows which one), you have to pull the cord to get off the bus and sit in a parking lot, composing yourself while you wait for the next bus.

I would get to work and buckle down on my day job until lunchtime, when I would get my phone back out and put in another hour on my manuscript. Rinse and repeat for the bus ride home. If I had a little time left at night, I would work some more on my laptop. But before that, I would do something very important to this process: I would take a walk. No iPod, no headphones, just the sound of my own heartbeat and thoughts in my ears. And what would I do on this walk? I’d think about where I wanted to go next in the story. I’d listen to my characters telling me who they were and what they wanted. If you’re drafting under a time crunch, you don’t have much freedom to wander and fly by the seat of your pants. You have to work out beforehand what you want to write. I often get asked what I do to overcome writers’ block. The answer is walks. I’ve never gone on a walk where I didn’t bring home the answer to at least one problem in my story.

It wasn’t just walking time I’d use to do this planning. I’d do it while I was working out. While I was putting away laundry. While I was washing dishes. While I was in line at the grocery store. While I was in boring meetings. While I was at church. While I was driving for work.

And even before all this, I gave myself a few months just to get to know my characters. I invited them into my mind for what I’ve come to call “The Residency.” The Residency is when my characters move in and start talking to each other and to me in my head. I sit and eavesdrop. I carry them through my day—through my world—and ask them how they’d react to given situations. I know I’m ready to write when I feel like once I’m putting pen to paper, so to speak, it’ll be my characters telling me their story—with me acting as their scribe—rather than me telling my characters their story. When you have living, breathing humans with thoughts and desires and needs leading you by the hand, it’s a lot easier to make the most of your time when recording their story.

If all this doesn’t sound exhausting, then great. If it does, know that it is not in fact exhausting. It’s exhilarating. Every day that I create something with the scraps of time that would otherwise go wasted makes me feel like a superhero who gets 27-hour days.

It’s a great feeling.

Jeff Zenter Writing on Bus

Jeff Zentner in the Washington Post

Random House Teachers and Librarians