Blog

Writing

How To Develop A Sustainable Writing Practice

I once had a workshop teacher who would light a candle in the beginning of each class in order to “invoke the muse.” I secretly rolled my eyes, thinking it was hokey. A year later, I found myself making tea in a china pot, taking it to my desk, and making myself stay and write until the tea got cold.

My teacher was right. Sometimes we need something external to signal that we are taking time from our daily life to write. (A door that closes and locks is another one that comes to mind.) Lots of people want to write, but what makes a writer is the ability to establish a practice and get their work done.

This is where sustainability comes in. It’s a buzz word, sure, but “long-ass haul” doesn’t have the same professional sound. You want to develop a practice that keeps you writing, not one that burns you out. I had a friend who said she was going to walk five miles every day. If she missed a day, she’d walk ten the next. This is not a sustainable practice, and she did not sustain it.

Ignore all Advice That Is Not Useful to You

Sure, one person might write only in the library, and another meditates before an hour of writing. Standing desk, timers, waking up at 3 am, in the car at your kid’s soccer practice. There are a thousand stories of how people get writing done. The only one you need is the one that works for you. Not the romantic image that you would like to be part of, but the actual system that will keep you writing in the middle of the summer and in the middle of the winter, when you have company or when the other members of your household are away.

Don’t know what works for you? Try a new approach every week. Figure out what works best for you, and stick to it.

There Is No Magic

Sorry. The fickle fairy, the muse, creativity blessing you and abandoning you in turn is a myth. Writing begets more writing. Reading begets writing. Write on a regular basis (whether that’s every day or a few times a week) and you will almost always be able to write something. Major life events do mess up your access to your writing brain, but be patient, it will pass. If grad school taught me one thing, it’s that I can sit down and write a decent poem draft in two hours given enough caffeine and pressure when I’m “in shape,” that is, writing regularly.

Not in shape? Start slow. Do low-stakes writing, like keeping a journal. Do writing exercises. Work your way up to a short story, essay, poem, or—lord help you—a book. Write a blog or a letter to a friend. During my last move I made up soap opera versions of my daily life to regale a friend. Moving was stressful, and that was all the writing I did on those days. But it was funny and creative. It was better than nothing.

How do you keep writing?

 

 

 

Writing, Writing Residencies

Should I Go To A Writing Residency?

Yes. Next question?

Oh, you wanted more? Writing residencies are one of the best things that ever happened to my writing. The other is Scrivener and possibly my MFA program. And perhaps a series of life events that I did not enjoy, but that gave me something to write about.

What Is A Writing Residency?

An official writing residency (as opposed to a DIY writing residency, which is also awesome and worth doing) is a place you apply to go stay for a certain period of time to write. They range from opulent to rustic, sometimes they provide food, other times they only provide kitchens. Size, expense, location, and number of coresidents all vary wildly.

Why Should I Go To A Writing Residency?

Yes, you can write at home or the library. But do you? Writing residencies offer a block of time where your only responsibility is to write (although your coresidents would probably appreciate it if you cleaned up after yourself in the kitchen as well). You have your own space, usually with a bed and a desk, at the very least. Often there is a common area and interesting places to explore and get your mind out of its ordinary patterns.

Residencies are a gift. For those of us who squeeze our writing around work and other responsibilities, the time is magical. You have days that you structure entirely based on your writing needs. You have time to write AND read. You can go into depth in your work in a way that you can’t when you snatch an hour at a time from your daily life.

What Should I Consider When Choosing A Residency?

Think long and hard about what you need to write.

Cost: Can you afford to pay for a residency? Are there scholarships? (Often yes.) Can you afford to get to the residency? Do you need a stipend? (Sometimes there are stipends!) Can you afford to feed yourself while you’re there?

Setting: Be brutally honest with yourself. Will you like living in a cabin in the woods or will it freak you out? What is your relationship with spiders? If you go to a residency in a foreign country, will you write or will you gad about? (No judgment.) Do you need to be in an isolated place so you sit your butt in the chair and write? Do you need the Internet? Do you need to be in walking/driving distance of a grocery store, urban center, national park, or coffeeshop? Can you haul firewood? What creature comforts can you not do without?

Food: Would you benefit from being fed at specific times or would you resent having to stop work and go to dinner? Do you want to talk to other people? Do you hate to cook? I have never been to a catered residency (I hear they’re great), but I’ve got a pretty good repertoire of bachelor dinners and don’t mind PB&J on a regular basis.

Level of Sociability: Do you like people? Do you like talking about writing? Do you want to avoid all humans and just get your work done? Do you secretly long for a glass of wine at the end of your writing day and conversation with other writers? In my experience, there is a lot of drinking at writing residencies. I’ve never seen anyone be intolerant of nondrinkers, but if drinking makes you uncomfortable, plan accordingly. I’ve had so many amazing conversations with coresidents at my various residencies, and I have some strong friendships as well. But I also have a couple eye-rolling crazy stories. Fortunately, the good outweighed the bad.

Your Level of Resiliency: How do you feel about solitude? Can you be somewhat alone with your writing for the length of your residency? The running joke is that you’re not allowed to knock on other writers’ studio doors during the day at Yaddo, because the writer is either napping or crying. It’s funny because it’s true. I have napped and cried, despaired and rejoiced at every single residency I’ve been to. Can you deal with the challenge of writing every day and the intensity that comes with it?

Where Do I Find One of these Magical Things?

Poets and Writers and the Alliance of Artists Communities

What is your experience at writing residencies?

(Photo: the porch at Woodstock’s Byrdcliffe Residency; I recommend the residency, but see above point re spiders.)

Writing

The Cliche as an Opportunity

I was at a bad poetry reading—the kind of reading where the architectural details of the room are more interesting than the poems themselves. I focused on keeping the “politely interested” look fixed to my face. But my concentration was broken when one of the poets intoned, “the tulips were yellow as the sun.”

I don’t need to tell you, dear reader, that this is a cliché. The purpose of poetry is to see things in a new way, not to repeat childish clichés and tired imagery. But not only was the image uninteresting, it was incorrect. The Sun is a yellow dwarf star, but rarely appears to be the color of a tulip. In fact, most of us look at it directly only when it is shrouded in haze and has taken on a dark orange glow.

I don’t mean to shame this poet. We’ve all written boring lines and come to obvious conclusions. It’s part of the writing process! But this is where revision becomes important. Look for places where your writing relies on other people’s phrases. I don’t mean plagiarism, but rather descriptions that are encoded in our language. Some examples are a cozy village, a feisty heroine, sleeping like the dead, being cool as a cucumber, lost in the weeds, coming down the pipeline, time heals all wounds. Clichés have their place in the language, but not in literature.

I told an undergraduate intro to poetry class about my bad poetry reading, where the tulip was yellow as the sun.

“Tell me something about the sun,” I said.

“It’s a star,” one student said.

“What’s it made out of?”

“Helium?” a student ventured.

“What color is helium?” I asked.

“I think it’s odorless and colorless,” she responded.

“What color is the sun?”

“Orange?”

“How often do you look at that the sun?”

“Hopefully not very often.”

“Exactly. The sun is made up of colorless gases and we can’t look at it straight on. It is hot and dense enough that nuclear fusion occurs at its core. The Parker Solar Probe is heading there now, where it will come as close as anything can to ‘touch’ the gaseous sun. All of those things are more interesting than the fact that the tulip was yellow as the sun.” The class agreed. Sometimes it’s good for students to have something to superior about.

Don’t beat yourself up (cliche) for writing a cliche. Instead, think about how to make the image more specific. A cliche is an opportunity to make your writing more interesting. Do you need some inspiration? Here is a poem by Margaret Atwood (please ignore the crap line spacing):

You fit into me

like a hook into an eye

 

a fish hook

an open eye

 

(Photo credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Steve Gribben)

 

 

 

 

Writing

Eyes Closed

I prepared to teach a nature poetry workshop at a local yoga studio, but it was cancelled. As a result, I have a bunch of poetry exercises floating around in my head. These can be adapted to any kind of writing as well. I think I inflicted one of them on my students a few years ago.

First Exercise: Go outside. Close your eyes. How do you know it’s spring?

This one is easy for me now that I’ve moved to Vermont and have a backyard that borders a field, a forest, and a stream. I’ve got birds trying to nest on a tin roof. Blue jays are fighting each other for resources. At night, I can hear peepers. The air does not hurt my face. It smelled like manure last weekend when the guy across the stream plowed his field.

Second Exercise: What did your house growing up/your friend’s house/your first apartment (insert dwelling of the past) smell like? What are the nonvisual reminders that you have arrived to a particular place?

My college town smelled like the cereal factory and my hometown smells like greenery. The train wailed at each of the many crossings going through my college town, and I know I’ve pulled into my own driveway in Vermont when I hear the blackbirds kicking up a fuss. The house I grew up in smelled like cool ash on summer mornings, and one house I lived in sometimes smelled like low tide. The ducks and gulls were deafening.

Close your eyes. How do you know you are where you are?

Memoir, Uncategorized

Dad Jokes

There is a joke my father used to love to tell.

There’s an astronomer, a mathematician, and an engineer walking through a field in Scotland. They see a black sheep on a hill in front of them. The astronomer looks at the sheep and declares, “I conclude there are many black sheep in all of Scotland.” The mathematician shakes his head disapprovingly and says, “I conclude there is at least one black sheep in all of Scotland.” The engineer shakes her head and says, “I conclude that the sheep is black on the side facing us.”

When I was a kid, he explained it to me, and I didn’t get it. In my twenties, I got it, but didn’t think it was funny. Now, I both get it and think it’s funny.

The engineer can only swear to that which she can verify for sure. You don’t want to build a bridge assuming the pilings are thick enough. You want to measure, design, and plan to be sure. This is how copyeditors look at the words they are paid to edit. Is there a period there? There should be a period there. But is it actually there? Would you bet your paycheck on it?

All day I read scientific papers that might as well had been in a foreign language for all I understand them. This lack of comprehension means there is nothing to distract me from how these sentences are constructed. Eventually I become familiar with the vocabulary and although I do not know what the words mean, I learn what part of speech they are, how they tend to be used in a sentence and how they fit together. I am a structural engineer of language.

Do you think the joke is funny?

 

Reading, Weather

Siberian Heat Wave

The winter of 2015 was difficult in the Boston area. It snowed two feet every few days in February. My little dog didn’t have the clearance to make it down the stairs, so I learned the fine New England art of shoveling pee trails. I felt trapped, sore, and cranky.

Around that time, I became fascinated with Norilsk. Photographer Elena Chernyshova took gorgeous photos of the cold polluted Siberian city. Normally I like to read about the Arctic and Antarctic during the summer for its psychosomatic cooling effects, but this was not a normal winter.

I added Norilsk to phone’s report of weather in various cities. It might be warmer in Charlottesville (my hometown) or New Orleans (a favored destination), but it was always colder in Norilsk. But not today.

Today it is 81 degrees, the same temperature in Norilsk that it is in Charlottesville, Virginia. This is 15 degrees warmer than it is in coastal Massachusetts. July is the warmest month in Norilsk, but this is still record breaking. July averages in Siberia range between 40 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit.

Europe is undergoing a heat wave. Last year a Siberian heat wave woke up some anthrax viruses, which had been dormant since the 40s. Forecasters say it may hit 95 degrees above the Arctic Circle.

This is the climate, changing.

 

 

 

 

 

Writing

Goldstein’s First Law

My uncle likes to declare laws. He’ll say, “Goldstein’s First Law is don’t believe everything you hear. Goldstein’s Second Law is don’t necessarily disbelieve it either.” Then he gives you a characteristically cheeky grin. My cousins also come up with laws. We are all named Goldstein, so Goldstein’s laws vary by the one who declares them. It’s all very confusing.

This Goldstein’s First Law of  Writing is “know thyself.” I tell my students they have to understand how they work in order to get words on the page. Don’t try to write at 5 am if you are a night owl. Don’t try to write an outline when you’re really a pantser (i.e., a writer who “flies by the seat of her pants” or doesn’t figure out what she’s writing about until she is done, as per Joan Didion). You get the idea.

Sometimes, however, you are so caught up in the draft that you forget yourself. I spent two weeks at a writing residency in May. My co-resident Cathy observed that every time I said to her over breakfast that I hated my chapter, I turned a corner and had an epiphany by happy hour.

I texted her yesterday. “I hate chapter 3. That’s a good sign, right?”

“Yup,” she texted in response.

I hated chapter 3 all morning. I found myself looking for things on etsy and checking facebook ten times a minute. I couldn’t figure out where to work and drifted from porch to yard to table to couch. Anything but look at the page.

Then at noon I realized what I had been doing wrong. I moved a middle chunk to the end and fixed my major problem. The chapter is coming together. I live to fight write another day.

What are your patterns?