For the past month or so, I’ve been working on a writing project inspired by an article I saw in Oprah magazine. For most of the summer, I struggled with my writing, trying (unsuccessfully) to write my way back into a book-length narrative I’d started back in November and feeling generally uninspired about posting to my blog. For most of the summer, I faithfully wrote my morning journal pages but couldn’t motivate myself to write much more, feeling uninspired, uncreative, and entirely at a lack of anything to say: stuck. I couldn’t get into the book-length narrative, I didn’t particularly want to blog, and I basically wondered how I’d ever find my way back to writing (and wanting to write) again.
I could offer any of a number of deep, psychological reasons why I spent most of the summer stuck. Since Reggie died in April, I haven’t been walking as much as I used to: without the impetus of an elderly dog with a tiny bladder, I can stay home rather than going for frequent dog-walks. Now that I no longer live in Keene, the walks I do take are on quiet suburban streets, not the occasionally gritty small-town setting I was accustomed to writing about. Given that my dog-walks with Reggie were a constant source of creative inspiration, this summer’s writing felt tepid and uninspired: if you’re no longer doing the thing that used to inspire you, how do you find inspiration in a different place, with a different routine, and with a different dog?
The premise of that Oprah article was mind-numbingly simple: instead of focusing on the psychological issues keeping you “stuck,” simply write a contract outlining a specific writing commitment—any writing commitment—and then swap that contract with a friend who agrees to keep track of your progress. In the article, Aimee Bender describes the commitment a friend made to work on her stories for one hour a day five days a week: a commitment she made in writing and shared with Bender, who served as her accountability partner.
She would write five days a week for an hour. As a firm reminder, every day, when she finished her hour, she would e-mail me one word: Done, and at some point during the day, I would e-mail back Check. No other words were necessary. All that was being acknowledged was that she’d sat at her computer for an hour with the intention to write, whether or not she did.
When I first read Bender’s article, I’m sure I chuckled: how could simply making a promise to sit at your desk for an hour with only “the intention to write” result in anything? Why would simply making a promise in writing and then sharing that written promise with a friend be any more powerful than making a promise to yourself? And how could calling your written promise a “contract” make it more binding than a mere (but sincere) resolution? I was sure none of it would work: like many of the things I read in Oprah magazine, this was probably another bit of advice that sounds too simple to be true because it is too simple to be true. The idea of making a contractual promise to write and then simply keeping your promise sounded like another bit of self-help wisdom that is inspiring in theory but in practice is nothing more than snake-oil: pure placebo.
The funny thing is, though, the article was right.
As silly as it sounds, there is something profoundly powerful about expressing your promises in writing. First, you have to define your goals. When I say I’m going to “write” for an hour a day, five days a week, what exactly does that mean? Am I working on a particular project, am I writing whatever appears, or am I focused on writing a particular genre or narrative style? In my case, I decided that “writing” refers to nonfiction prose, it can include journal-writing and blog-post crafting, and it can include the revision of previously written work. In my contract, in other words, I defined “writing” to cover all the stages of crafting and polishing prose, not just the initial composition. If I don’t have anything new to say in today’s writing hour, I can go back and revise something I wrote previously.
Second, when you craft a writing contract, you have to set your list of “Don’ts.” While you’re sitting at your computer trying to write, what can’t you do? I decided that sitting and thinking (also known as “doing nothing”) was okay, but sitting and surfing the web wasn’t. During my contractual hour, I am not allowed to check email, Facebook, Twitter, or Google Reader. I’m not allowed to dry dishes, fold laundry, or do any other sort of housework; I’m not allowed to answer the phone; and I’m not allowed to write handouts, class plans, or other kinds of teaching documents. When I sit down to write, I need to stay sitting even if I’m stuck and don’t feel like writing. If I force myself to sit there “doing nothing,” I eventually find something I want to work on.
When I sit down to “write my hour,” as I’ve taken to calling it, I turn off my email notification and set a digital kitchen timer for 60 minutes: a full hour of no email, no Facebook, no blog-reading, no web-surfing, no work or housework. When you create a temporal space for your writing, you create a kind of intellectual vacuum: an empty hole the Universe seeks to fill. Most of us are amazingly gifted when it comes to filling this kind of vacuum with any manner of busywork. Given the choice between spending an hour with a blank page and spending an hour doing “something productive,” we typically choose the productive option, avoiding our writing by dusting the bookshelves, rearranging the closet, paying bills, or doing pretty much anything that isn’t writing.
One thing I’ve discovered this past month or so, however, is that the earth continues to spin even when I’m not continually checking email. All the essential things on my to-do list—the papers I need to read, the emails I need to answer, the classes I need to plan—are all there and waiting for me after I finish writing my hour. Devoting five hours a week to my own writing hasn’t turned me into a wretchedly ineffective, self-absorbed teacher even though for one hour a day, five days a week, I’m ignoring both my email inbox and lingering paper piles. If anything, I find that writing my hour makes me a more engaged and inspired teacher because teaching is no longer ALL I’m going. Given the creative stimulus of my own intellectual pursuits, I can devote my full attention to teaching when I’m teaching, then I can walk away and do something else when my teaching time is done.
Another thing I’ve learned from a month of keeping my “hours” is how to blog slowly. Not every idea has to be published immediately, in the instance of its emergence; instead, some ideas can be allowed to germinate, ripen, and mature. Several of the pieces I’ve blogged this past month are the result of writing and revising over a week or more. I assembled “Sudden hummingbirds,” for instance, from paragraphs scribbled over several days’ worth of journal pages, then I spent about a week revising it. “How to read a true war story” also first appeared in my handwritten journal, and it took me nearly a week and a half to continue thinking about, adding to, and revising it. When I say I spend a week or more working on these pieces, that doesn’t mean I spend all my writing time in a given week working on one essay. Instead, at any given time, I have several essays-in-progress saved in a folder I’ve named “The Hours”: something close-at-hand to work on whenever I sit down and start my timer.
Even a piece like “Anticlimax,” the first draft of which I wrote in a single sitting, benefited from me taking a few days before publishing it. When I wrote that piece on the Friday morning an exterminator came to destroy our backyard bald-faced hornets’ nest, I wasn’t completely satisfied with the essay’s tone. The original draft seemed too superficial and even flippant, focusing too much on how professional a job the exterminator had done. Not satisfied with the piece, I let it linger on my laptop over the weekend, and then I published it the following Monday morning, after removing two paragraphs that took the piece in the wrong direction and cobbling together a conclusion that better matched what I wanted to say.
It might seem silly to dedicate this much time revising blog posts: after all, blog posts are often considered a throw-away genre, something you slap up in the heat of the moment. But just because I can share something the minute I finish writing it doesn’t mean I should share it so quickly. When I first started keeping a blog, the goal was to give me a forum in which to practice writing. Working on my “hours” has reminded me that as much as I enjoy writing, I enjoy revision even more. In any given week, there are ideas that make their way into my morning journal pages that could be shared on-blog or elsewhere if only I took the time to develop them, and my weekly “hours” are allowing me to do exactly that.
When I initially signed my writing contract, I wanted to devote my “hours” to working on the book-length narrative I started last November, and indeed part of what I’ve been doing is revisiting revisable bits in that larger work. “A stone that will endure,” for instance, is a piece that refused to be written in June, when I told myself it should serve as the opening of that envisioned narrative: somehow, telling myself I was trying to write the beginning of a BOOK made the words freeze in my fingers. Now that I’m sitting down to write five days a week whether or not I call that writing a “book,” I’m realizing I truly do write like Thoreau, finding inspiration in my daily journal-keeping and seeing not much of a difference between short essays and more sustained narratives. The way to write a book, I’m deciding, isn’t to sit down and say “I’m writing a book”; instead, the way to write a book is the way you write anything. You sit down and write whatever wants to appear right now, you go back and revise whatever wanted to appear previously, and you cobble together whatever you end up with, letting revision smooth over the seams.
I don’t know where my “hours” will ultimately lead me. I might end up with a book, I might end up with a bunch of blog posts, or I might end up with some strange combination of both. Right now, I’m trying not to spend too much time defining what it is I’m writing; instead, I’m enjoying the simple fact that I am writing, the change in season bringing a welcome end to my summer stagnation.