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One of these things is not like the others

Whenever I sit down to write and can’t find anything to say, I think of the nursery rhyme about Old Mother Hubbard, who went to give her dog a bone but the cupboard was bare. (Apparently that nursery rhyme has verses beyond the one I know: it sounds like Mother Hubbard’s dog was quite talented.)

Isn't all water "skinny"?

Sometimes when I sit down to write, my mind feels like an empty cabinet…or, more accurately, a messy drawer so crammed with junk, I can’t find much less extricate whatever I’m looking for. Sometimes “nothing to say” means “I have nothing interesting to say,” and sometimes it means “the only interesting things I have are little bits of this and that, and I don’t know how to stitch them together into something worth sharing.”

New Age Drinks?

My inner-artist resonates so deeply with Old Mother Hubbard, a quick search shows I’ve mentioned bare cupboards in seven different blog posts, all of them describing this same experience of sitting down to write and finding nothing. Whatever else might be going on at any given moment, you still have to feed the blog, even if all you have to offer is a handful of crumbs and scraps.

Maybe this all explains why I enjoy grocery shopping, a chore I find doubly satisfying. First, there is the comfort of seeing shelves and cases neatly stocked with wares: abundance in aisles. And then there is the satisfaction of coming home and unpacking one’s purchases: a pantry of plenty.

Head of the Charles regatta

Today is the last day of November, which means it’s the last day of National Blog Posting Month, or NaBloPoMo: a conscious commitment to post once a day, every day, during the month of November. I’ve done NaBloPoMo for several years now: it’s a good, annual nudge to get me blogging more at a point in the semester when I don’t have much time to write.

Head of the Charles regatta

Since NaBloPomo is basically an experiment to see whether I can balance blogging atop a teetering pile of daily demands, at the end of the month I like to look back and see what (if anything) I’ve learned from the experience of posting something every day, even on days when I technically didn’t have the time or inspiration to write.

Head of the Charles regatta

Every year, I realize (again) that I can always find something to say, even on hurried and uninspired days, and every year, I discover (again) that I sometimes surprise myself with the posts that seemingly materialize out of thin air. There is, I’ve found, something magical about the simple action of setting your fingers on a keyboard: once you start typing, your mind will furnish you with something to say, even if you had no idea what you were going to blog about.

Head of the Charles regatta

I sometimes think of this as being the “stone soup” nature of blogging: even when you think your cupboard is bare, you can always find a little bit of something simmer. The magic, again, happens when you set fingers to keyboard or pen to paper…or when you open Google Drive on your phone and start tapping out a new Doc.

Head of the Charles regatta

(Yes, more than a few blog posts this month were initially composed on my phone, that ubiquitous device that doubles as a word processor if you don’t mind typing with your thumbs. You’d be surprised how much you can write during the spare minutes you’re waiting at the vet, at your favorite take-out place, or in line at the drugstore.)

Head of the Charles regatta

As in past years, I’m a bit relieved to be posting my last November blog entry for the year. Now that Thanksgiving break has come and gone, the busiest part of the semester looms, and I need to focus on things other than blogging. But before I press my nose to the proverbial grindstone, it feels good to look back on a solid month’s worth of blogging: proof of what I can do when I set my mind to it, even if my mind claims to be too busy and uninspired to write.

Today’s photos come from this year’s Head of the Charles regatta, which happened back in October. The best stone soups are sometimes simmered from long-overlooked leftovers.

Tricolor

It’s after dark and I’m bone-tired after a long day of teaching. I have a handful of tasks to check off before I can unplug for the night, but I feel uninspired: like Old Mother Hubbard, my cupboard is bare.

Kid Photo Op

I pick up a book I recently checked out from the library but haven’t yet had time to read–Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear–and read the first chapter, hoping for a glimmer of inspiration or encouragement.

And there it is, only a few pages in: a poet corners a shy student and asks her what plans to do with her life. When the student says she wants to write, the poet responds, “Do you have the courage? Do you have the courage to bring forth this work?”

Portrait

It takes great courage to show up to the page, especially when it’s dark and you’re bone-tired. It’s so much easier to curl up with one’s doubts and insecurity–so much easier to rehash the old complaints and rehearse the usual excuses. Last night, one of my colleagues quoted one of his own teachers as saying “It’s my job to make sure you pursue your ideas.” It takes great courage to pursue an idea wherever it goes, tracking it relentlessly like a bloodhound hot on her prey. Do you have the courage and tenacity to follow your inspiration wherever it leads?

Fallen leaf and leaf prints

A few nights ago, my writing partner emailed to let me know she hadn’t completed her daily writing commitment, but she’d done part of it: she’d showed up at the page. The phrase “showing up at the page” is a shorthand we both understand: showing up at the page is what you do on days when you don’t feel like you have anything to say, or you’re stumped at how to phrase what you do have to say, but you show up anyway, just in case words magically appear despite all your doubts and second-guesses.

Fallen leaf and leaf print

Showing up at the page takes a great deal of faith and dedication. Regardless of all the evidence to the contrary, you believe in your heart of hearts that the process of showing up is worthwhile and valuable even on (and even especially on) days when the product you produce is puny, disappointing, or just plain insipid. You believe despite all your doubts and second-guesses that the discipline of showing up is its own reward, and you believe despite all your doubts and second-guesses that showing up is important because there are, occasionally, those magically unpredictable days when Something spontaneously appears out of Nothing. If you hadn’t made a practice of showing up at the page, how could you have experienced that windfall?

Henry David Thoreau captured the spirit of showing up for the page when he wrote in Walden, “I never assisted the sun materially in his rising, but, doubt not, it was of the last importance only to be present at it.” The sun will both rise and set without you, and there will be days when it’s too cloudy for you to see anything the sun might happen to be doing at the moment. But on those days, too, there is something to be gained from the discipline of showing up for the sunrise and observing whatever you can see. Think of all the things—an entire bustling Universe of activity—that happen every day whether we’re watching or not…and then think of the things we might actually see if we were present with our eyes open and alert.

Fallen leaf and leaf print

Years ago in Rhode Island, in the woods behind the Providence Zen Center, I saw a weasel by sheer accident. Hiking the winter woods behind the monastery where I’d been meditating and suffering, homesick and sore, for five days, I stopped to listen to the sizzle of rain falling on melting snow. I remember the woods were silent, hushed and expectant; honed by hours of meditation, I must have instinctively sensed the precise silent moment—raindrops paused in midair as if in a giant snow globe—when that tiny fanged predator, a curling wisp of sinew and muscle, would silently patter into view, running downhill into his own footprints, a limp and bloodied chipmunk dangling from his mouth. Had I not been walking in the silent Rhode Island woods at precisely the right moment, I would have never seen that weasel, that chipmunk, those sizzling raindrops.

Showing up at the page is like keeping watch at the bedside of a comatose relative: you watch, wait, and hold out hope because your patient might be present and alive in there, despite an unresponsive body. Just because your patient doesn’t seem to respond doesn’t mean they aren’t there: as Jesus said of a child he raised from the dead, “She’s not dead; she’s only sleeping.” On days when your own creativity seems dead, you show up and sit by the tomb, expectant. If today should be the miraculous day when your lifeless creativity should stir and then sit up in its shroud, you will be there to see it. There might not be anything you can do to help either the sun or the dead rise, but it is of the last importance that you be present just in case.

Fallen leaf and leaf print

Keeping a blog is a great exercise in showing up at the page. When you start a blog, you make an unspoken contract with your readers that you will show up and say something regularly enough to make their checking in worthwhile: a blog grown cold is like a closed and darkened house where a weary traveler had hoped for hospitality. Many days when you show up to “feed the blog,” you feel like Old Mother Hubbard reaching into a cupboard that’s sadly bare. When you’re forced to concoct a blog-worthy meal out of meager scraps, you often end up with a stone soup simmered with bits of this and that: nothing fancy, just something simple and savory. Out of the leftovers of your days, what kind of sustenance can you cobble together if you simply continue to show up for your own life?

Recyclable

One surefire sign of fall at Keene State College is the annual appearance of student art projects. As in past years, these temporary outdoor sculptures feature cheap, widely accessible materials such as empty water bottles and plastic coat hangers. When you’re a starving student artist, you learn to use whatever you find close at hand.

Green bike

This practice of creative frugality is one I can appreciate. On a gray, mildly Melvillean day like today, it’s easy to feel like one’s cupboard of creative inspiration is bare. Finding nothing scenic or sensational to share, you reach for whatever is close at hand, even if “whatever is close at hand” is a handful of photos you shot last month. On some days, preparation for blogging starts the night before; on other days, it takes even longer than that.

One of the things I enjoy about my November commitment to post something every day is the way it forces my creative hand. If I were a student in a college art class, I’d have to figure out a way to impress my professor with yesterday’s trash by today’s deadline: I wouldn’t have the time or the luxury to wait for inspiration. Making a commitment to blog everyday accomplishes something similar. On any given day, you’ve promised to post something whether you feel inspired or not, and this discipline to “do it anyway” unlocks its own kind of creativity. They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and it turns out that “invention” has a twin sibling named “inspiration.” Instead of waiting for inspiration to strike, a blogger who’s promised to post every day has to take her inspiration wherever she can find it.

No more boring graffiti

I can’t promise to show you no more pictures of boring graffiti, but I can promise no more blog-posts for November, 2009.

Legos

When I announced my commitment to participate in November’s National Blog Posting Month by posting something (anything!) on each of November’s thirty days, I didn’t envision how quickly the month would fly by. But here I am on the brink of December with thirty posts under my belt: just like that, NaBloPoMo is no more.

Over the past thirty days, I learned it’s not too difficult to post something (anything!) every day if you keep a well-stocked photographic pantry to use on days when light is scarce and inspiration is scarcer. It also helps if you keep a daily journal you can plunder for posts.

More than anything, though, it helps to have an arbitrary commitment to post even when you feel you have nothing significant to say or share. There have been more than a few days this month when I’ve felt like Mother Hubbard looking at her proverbial bare cupboard, but I somehow posted anyway. In retrospect, it was good to have made the promise to post, because that promise kept me posting whether I felt like it or not. Some days you feel like you have something to say, and other days you don’t…but even on the days when you don’t feel particularly profound, you can almost always stir up something, even if it’s only a dirty, gritty version of stone soup.

Faces

Occasionally, it’s good to remind yourself that you don’t need huge, uninterrupted chunks of time to spend on your writing: just a few minutes here and a few minutes there can be “enough” if you’ve made a commitment to make good use of those minutes. A few weeks ago, at a particularly busy point in the semester, one of my teaching colleagues asked me if I’d found much time lately to write, and she seemed amazed when I replied that I’d been writing and posting every day. This particular colleague is a poet, and she says she works best when she can devote four or more hours to a work-in-progress…but I can’t remember the last time I had four straight hours that weren’t interrupted by work, chores, or social commitments. If I wrote only when I could steal four uninterrupted hours from my various demands, I’d never write at all. I’m lucky, I think, that prose is so much easier to write than poetry: a genre I can literally squeeze into the tiny gaps in otherwise busy days.

Niche

November is ending right in the nick of time, as December is the busiest, most grading-intensive time of the semester: it will be good to have one less arbitrary commitment to worry about these next few weeks, when I’ll be facing a seemingly endless series of seemingly bottomless paper piles. Whereas blogging can (and does) get squeezed into those occasional moments when I find or make time, paper-grading really does require the kind of uninterrupted concentration my aforementioned colleague devotes to poetry.

I don’t see any poem-writing in my immediate future, just a lot of paper-grading. Given the many to-do’s that stand between me and the end of my current semester, I’m happy to return to an unpredictably occasional blog-posting schedule, saying “no more, for now” to November’s NaBloPoMo commitment. It’s never too early, after all, to start stocking one’s pantry for next year.

Branch & sky

One of the things I like about this month’s commitment to post every day is the way it forces me to look on the literal bright side. When I announced that I’d be participating in this November’s National Blog Posting Month, I knew that finding something to say everyday wouldn’t be the problem, for words appear regardless of the weather. The challenge for daily posting in a darkening month is finding enough light to take pictures. On any given day, it’s not difficult to find something to tell you, but some day’s it’s a challenge to find something to show you.

Crumpled

In sunny months when I post every day or so, I usually rely on a daily intake of photos: whatever I blog today is illustrated with whatever I’ve just recently photographed. In November, however, there days like today when I literally don’t see much light of day. It was dark when I walked Reggie in the morning, it was dark when I got home to walk him again tonight, and I spent most of my in-between hours inside classrooms and my underground office, and neither of these places offers a great setting for digital photographs.

Point-and-shoot digital cameras need a lot of light to take decent pictures: that’s why most of the photos I post on-blog are taken outdoors. Outside on a sunny day, it’s difficult not to take good pictures, because the sunlight shows everything in its best light. But on dim days, even otherwise lovely things look drab and shabby. With less light to work with these days, scrounging a daily dose of bloggable pictures can be a challenge.

Pearls

I’m learning this month to look at my sunny day dog-walks as my chance to stockpile photographic provisions for the rest of the week. Just as folks who go to the grocery store only once a week learn to make a list so they buy enough ingredients for an entire week’s worth of meals, I know that on my daylight dog-walks, I have to snap more than one day’s worth of bloggable pictures. I’m also learning that it’s good to have a well-stocked photographic larder in case of emergency. By posting all of my day-to-day pictures to Flickr–not just the ones I have immediate plans to blog–I know I have a pantry of non-perishables to fall back upon when my blog-cupboard is bare.

When you’ve made a commitment to post daily, you also approach each day with a different, more optimistic attitude. In addition to looking on the literal bright side, you also look on the proverbial one, viewing your day with an eye for the interesting, inspiring, or otherwise remarkable. On most days of a dimly lit, mid-semester month, there’s not much exciting happening in my life: prepping classes, walking the dog, doing chores, and reading piles upon piles of student papers isn’t exactly stuff to write home (or blog) about. But into each life a little sun must fall, and even the dullest days have their bright moments if you train yourself to spot them. A commitment to daily posting can provide that training if you make a concomitant commitment to keep your water-cooler whining to a minimum, deciding to post about the things you like about your life versus the usual complaints about the daily grind.

25 cents

A Christian minister once told me that the grass is always greener where it’s watered, and a Zen teacher once told me that whatever you pay attention to grows. If you spend a thirty-day month counting your complaints, you’ll realize by month’s end how rotten your life is. If you greet each November day with an attitude of optimistic expectation, wondering what sort of blog-worthy moments of insight or inspiration will dawn today, you’ll never be disappointed.

“You make, you get.” This is a simple Zen truism, but it points to the same wisdom of the Christian motto, “Ask and you shall receive; seek and you shall find.” If you approach any November morning with an expectant attitude of “What interesting or inspiring thing will happen today,” that request will be answered. If you greet every November day with expectation, every November day will provide you with something of insight or interest. And if you prodigally post today the ingredients you’d intended for later in the week, you’ll somehow find that you still have plenty, your pantry filling with the miraculous manna of daily inspiration.

Say what?

It’s the fifth week of the semester at Keene State, the fourth week of the semester for SNHU Online, and the third week of the semester at Granite State. In other words, this week I’m feeling the full brunt of being a multi-institutional adjunct instructor, burning the proverbial candle at both ends to keep all my juggled balls aloft and moving.

2007-09-24b

I’m tempted to say that like Mother Hubbard, my blog-cupboard is bare, but that’s not true. It’s not that I don’t have things to say, pictures to share, or ideas for blog-posts: there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to do it all.

Gate closed

At times like these, I feel more like a bricklayer than I do a writer. While my poet friends concern themselves with the crafting of fine delicate trinkets–the work of literary watchmakers or jewelers–I’m daunted by the sheer weight of words as I try to keep on top of a perpetually renewing paper-pile. There’s no time to help my students craft fine delicate sentences; instead, we’re in the business, my students and I, of building weighty walls of prose, and that means schlepping a lot of words.

Danger - No Trespassing

It’s tiring work, this building with words, brick by brick. At the end of one of my marathon teaching days, my feet ache with the weight of language, and I come home wanting nothing more than to sit on my couch and say nothing. On grading days when I’m home with dog, laptop, and the ever-present paper-pile, my head and neck feel the weight of words like a yoke as I plow, ox-like, through the furrows of other people’s prose, pen in hand.

Faded

At this point in the semester–the simultaneous fifth week, fourth week, and third–I ask myself why I require my students to write so damn much, a question I’m sure they’re each individually asking. The answer, unfortunately, is always the same. If you want to become a bricklayer yourself, you have to lay your own wall, brick by brick; if you want the benefit of learning from an older, more experience bricklayer, she needs to watch and oversee your progress. It’s long, grueling work, and there are no shortcuts. By week seven, six, and five, we all will be stronger and more callused, my students and I. Between now and then, though, all we feel is the slow grind of a heavy haul.

Road work ahead