Pansy’s NaNoWriMo

If you’re a writer—or know someone who is—you’re probably aware that the month of November is all about novel writing.

Every November writers from around the world join on-line writing communities (like NaNoWriMo and The King’s Daughters’ Writing Camp) where they record their efforts to write a novel in thirty days. Participants encourage each other, write together, share lessons learned, and talk about the challenges they face.

The most common challenge writers share in their on-line posts is how hard it is to find time to write every day. Many writers have full-time jobs, or small children, or other pressures that make it difficult to write a few paragraphs in thirty days, to say nothing of writing a full-length novel.

Old black and white photo of a young woman about 1910 seated at a desk, her hands on the keys of a typewriter. Behind her a giant clock on the wall shows three o'clock.

Yet, that problem isn’t a new one for twenty-first century writers. In the nineteenth century Isabella Alden faced the very same difficulty as she juggled her writing career with speaking engagements, household tasks, church duties, editing deadlines, and demands from fans and acquaintances.

In 1906, when Isabella was writing Ruth Erskine’s Son, she described a typical writing day that will probably sound very familiar to writers everywhere:

She began her day at seven o’clock by dressing and performing her daily household chores; but even before she finished making beds and doing laundry, she was interrupted by a summons to morning prayers and breakfast.

Old black and white photo of a woman circa 1915, dressed in long-sleeved, high collar blouse and long skirt, seated at a table, typing on a typewriter. Beside her is an large wooden roll-top desk. Behind her is a tufted leather bench.

After that she cleared the breakfast table, put the dining room in order, and went back to bed-making, dusting, laundry, and other tasks.

Then the postman made his delivery, which included a long-awaited letter, so the entire family was summoned to hear Isabella read the letter aloud.

Other delivered letters included:

  • A request from a woman who wanted Isabella to read her manuscript,
  • A man asking permission to read one of Isabella’s stories in his church,
  • Another woman requesting Isabella speak at a temperance meeting,
  • A little girl wanting Isabella to spend an evening with her Sunday-school class,
  • And one from her editor asking her to please write her magazine columns a little faster!

By 11:00 Isabella was finally seated at her typewriter, “struggling with an unusually hard problem in the life of that much enduring woman, Ruth Erskine Burnham,” when she was interrupted yet again.

Her sister Julia (who was living with the Aldens at the time) was busy in the kitchen making a ginger cake and she wanted Isabella to taste it. Of course Isabella did not complain about such a delicious interruption!

Color illustration of a woman about 1915 seated at a wooden desk, typing on an old-style typewriter.

Back at her work once again, she heard the door bell ring with a delivery.

A few minutes later came a vendor at the door selling “choice spinach, some delicious cauliflower, some fine oranges, and some splendid green peas.”

After dealing with the vendor, she wrote: “I am seated again with Ruth Erskine only to hear, ‘Belle!’ from the front stairway.”

It was her sister Mary volunteering to “fix my scrap basket for me, if I will find the materials for her.”

Old hand-colored photograph of a woman about 1915 wearing a blue dress with long-sleeves, high neckline, and floor-length skirt. she is seated at a small table on which is a red tablecloth and a typewriter.

By the time Isabella returned to her typewriter, she realized the entire morning was gone and it was time for lunch.

After lunch it was time to clear the table, and on entering the kitchen, Isabella discovered Julia had made much more than a ginger cake. She had busily baked “mince pies and apple pies, and a million little ginger cakes in patty tins” as well as five loaves of “splendid bread.”

All of those delicious items resulted in a great number of dishes to wash. Isabella wrote:

“I wash, and wash, and WASH; and scour the sink and clear off shelves and refrigerator and empty more dishes, and sweep the floors, and wash seven dish towels.”

And just as she was hanging her dish towels to dry, “the clock strikes four!”

Determined to write, Isabella went back to her desk, only to be interrupted by the doorbell, then by her husband asking “What do I want from downtown?”

At five o’clock she had a long conversation with a college student who was “consumed with fear that she has not passed” a class of which Isabella’s son Dr. Raymond Alden was the professor. The student made a special request of Isabella:

“Will I, his mother—for whom, they say he will do anything in the world [according to the student]—intercede for her and explain to him how it was? And then for the eleventh time she proceeds to tell me how things were.”

By the time that conversation ended, it was six o’clock and time for dinner. At eight o’clock Isabella wrote:

“I am seated again, not with Ruth Erskine, but giving heart and brain to that explanatory letter which is to move the hard heart of Professor Alden.”

“That being done, Satan enters into me, and instead of working, I write a letter to my beloved sister Marcia three thousand miles away—and then, good night, I’m gone to bed!”

These were—as Isabella called them—“the snares which lie across my path” when she was supposed to be writing.

Does Isabella’s account sound familiar to you?

Have you ever pledged to write—or read, or craft, or exercise—only to be interrupted or have competing priorities intrude on your time?

By the way, Isabella did finish writing Ruth Erskine’s Son, and it was published the following year. You can get your copy of Ruth Erskine’s Son by clicking on the book cover below:

8 thoughts on “Pansy’s NaNoWriMo

  1. I am in the King’s Daughter Writing Camp right now. I am happy with all I have done but I admit I have procrastinated a bit and now am down with a sore throat and small fever. I have 45 minutes to go to finish my camp goal and this post couldn’t have come at a better time.

  2. I really appreciate reading this. It is amazing how busy Isabella was and still managed to complete her writing projects. I also loved her homemaking jobs and that she dutifully kept her home nice and clean. I have only read a few of her books. I have “Only Ten Cents” in paperback and want to thank you for all the work you did getting it re-published.

    1. Isabella was very modest about her homemaking skills, but her niece Grace Livingston Hill described her as an excellent cook and housekeeper. Isabella credited her mother with teaching her the skills and joy of keeping a neat and comfortable home, which (I think) is a lovely way to learn. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

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