Thursday, June 26, 2008

Guest in Progress: Debbie Levy

I recently asked a friend if she would be interested in writing a guest piece, and she thought she might like to write about the difficulties of balancing writing and life. As she was figuring out what she wanted to say, she queried some of her writer friends for their thoughts and was so taken by this response that she suggested this should be an essay in and of itself. I agreed, and am happy to share writer Debbie Levy’s wise insight on finding that magical balance:

As you know, Cheryl Aubin asked some of us (her writer listserv friends) about how we go about balancing writing and life. There are plenty of ways to answer that question. I shared with her one small discovery I’ve made over the past decade, during which I’ve published 18 books for young people and otherwise encountered the usual sorts of stuff women encounter, such as shepherding sons from elementary school to college, sharing a life with my husband, dealing with breast cancer, creating family dinners (yes, in our family, the dinners have probably been as important as fighting cancer), and helping parents with debilitating illnesses. Many writers, of course, have much more on their plates to balance. Around ten years ago I got a cat. Six years ago, a dog. Which leads to this:

On balancing writing and life, here’s one idea. Share your life with an animal. Seriously. A dog. A cat. A dog and a cat. Even if you are already sharing your life with a spouse, a child, an in-law or two, various siblings and cousins. Here’s why:

Writing is solitary. It’s solitary even when you are surrounded by the aforementioned spouse, child, etc. A dog or cat offers the steady, always-present communion that most of us humans haven’t quite mastered yet.

A writing life is full of rejections. The dog thinks you’re fabulous. The cat does, too; she just may not show her admiration as openly. Get a rejection; bury your face in the animal’s neck. It helps.

Writing is often meant to be read aloud. Sure, you can read your poem or essay or manuscript to yourself. I find it helps me hear better—helps me detect awkward or self-conscious or repetitive passages—if a set of eyes is fixed on me. As in, wide yellow cat eyes. Brown, soulful dog eyes. You can call a friend and read the work to him or her. You can inflict it on your spouse. But, in the early stages of a piece of writing especially, you’re mostly looking for your own reaction. Reading aloud to yourself in the company of your animal feels right. Try it.

Writers often sit around all day. Get out of the house! A dog will encourage you to do exactly that. All morning long, my chocolate Lab, Toby, sits around with me while I work. Every so often she’ll approach me with a face that means, “Ready yet?” No, not yet. A little while later, she’ll put her head on my knee. Not yet. When she starts poking my elbow with her wet nose, I know I really should get up and out. The cat—Zoe—doesn’t need to be walked, but she does often want the window open, so she can sit on the ledge, and that nice, outside air reminds me that there is a world away from my desk. . . . so you see, a cat can also get you out of your chair.

Dogs and cats bring a certain level of disarray into your life. The shedding. The drooling. The nails on the floor, on the furniture. The barking at nothing. The hairballs. I know, life is messy without animals, too. But there’s something endearing and even humbling, to me, about the harmless disarray of animals. Life is messy; balancing is messy. Embrace the mess. ~~Debbie Levy

About: Debbie Levy’s most recent books for children include Underwater (Darby Creek Publishing 2007), a middle-grade novel (for ages 9-12). Check out her web site,, to find out about her other books for young people. Debbie’s first picture book of poetry for children, Maybe I’ll Sleep in the Bathtub Tonight and Other Funny Bedtime Poems, will be out in 2009 from Sterling.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.