Writing & creativity


Japanese barberry

Sometimes when a new acquaintance asks me what I do for a living, I say I teach panic management strategies.

Writing is a form of controlled panic. There is that sudden sinking feeling when you face the blank page, again, and wonder how you’re ever going to fill it. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve started from scratch before: there’s always a flash of panic that this time, for the first time, the words won’t show up.

Writing isn’t about getting rid of this perennial sense of panic; it’s about managing it. You befriend the Inner Critic who says you’re a nobody with nothing to say. You silently nod, smile, then ignore this voice, treating it as an annoying but ultimately innocuous stranger sitting next to you on the bus. No need to heed the opinions of someone who doesn’t even know you.

Managing panic means learning to live with it, recognizing it as a burden that doesn’t slow or stop you. Panic is like an albatross around your neck: annoying, yes, but neither final or fatal.

Writing is about scribbling on even though panic is screaming in your ear: in time, with practice, you’ll learn to overlook and overcome it. “Oh, yes,” you’ll say to yourself. “You again.”

***

In my first-year classes at both Framingham State and Babson, we start with five minutes of freewriting. Students are free to write about whatever they’d like, but I post three random words to give students a nudge if they have nothing else to write about.

Today’s post comes from yesterday’s five-minute entry in response to the word “Panic.”


Candy wrapper

Some days when you start to brew a blog post, you find the cupboard is bare. You have nothing to say, or nothing new to say, or nothing you want to hear yourself say, again.

This is a different kind of obstacle from not having time to write. When I’m busy, I often have plenty to say: so much going on, but so little time to talk about it. That’s a problem, but it’s not the problem I’m describing here.

No, what I’m describing is this: you’ve finally carved out a time to write, but you arrive at the page empty: no inspiration, no ideas, nada, zilch. These are the times when you cook some stone soup.

How do you make stone soup? You heat a brimming pot of Nothing to Say to a boil, then you toss in whatever random things you have at hand: a stone, a leaf, a castoff shoe. A bit of trash collected in a corner. An idea or random insight. A question, curiosity, or complaint.

Bring these to a boil, stir then let simmer, and voila! A hearty blog-post to warm even the coldest day.


Monthly letters to myself - 2020 edition

This morning I sorted through stationery, bundling the monthly letters I wrote to myself in 2020 and making room for the letters I’ll write to myself in 2022. This is a habit I’ve kept for the past few years: every month, I read a letter I wrote the previous year, then I write a letter to my Future Self.

I’m realizing my perennial reluctance to set New Year’s Resolutions isn’t based on any reluctance to set goals for myself–I set goals for myself all the time. Instead, this reluctance stems from an aversion to setting new goals, the whole spirit of New Year’s resolutions resting on the attitude of “out with the old, in with the new.”

I don’t want to start any new habits in 2022; instead, I want to continue cultivating the habits that have sustained me so far. Instead of “out with the old,” I want to continue in with the old.

Every year, I set the same basic goals for myself: read 50 books, write daily, blog more, and get a certain number of steps (currently, my daily step goal is 17,000). Every year I also resolve to take lots of pictures: at least one a day.

Looking back on the past few years, I’ve kept these goals, mostly. Throughout the pandemic, I’ve journaled nearly every day, and I have a shelf of notebooks to show for it. I wear a Fitbit to track my steps, and I use Goodreads to track the books I’ve read. For the past few years, I’ve religiously taken at least one photo every day even though I’ve been largely remiss about publicly posting those photos.

The only goal I continue to struggle with is the intention to blog more regularly. Given the choice between posting to my blog and writing in my journal, my journal always wins. If I had a secretary to transcribe each day’s scribbles so I could easily share them online, I’d have no shortage of things to share. But since I am my own secretary, editor, and muse, there are rarely enough hours in the day.

Every new year, I tell myself that THIS is the year when all this daily writing–all the journal-keeping and blog-posting–will result in an actual Book, “publish a book” being the biggest un-checked item on what is probably the world’s shortest bucket list. But like the opening montage in the movie Up where one mishap after another prevents Carl and Ellie from taking their dream trip to Paradise Falls, the elusive Book I presumably have in me is perpetually pushed to the back burner.

The last print book I finished in 2021 was Ruth Ozeki’s The Book of Form and Emptiness, where the Book within a boy named Benny literally cries out to be written. Unlike Benny, my Book has yet to speak to me, at least in any language I can hear. But my notebooks still cry to be filled, so I continue to show up at their pages.


Windblown

As the end of the term approaches, my first-year students are working on a Theory of Writing project that asks them to consider how they work as writers.

My students at Babson College have been working on this assignment for several weeks, and my students at Framingham State are just starting. In both cases, I asked students to read an essay by novelist Zadie Smith in which she talks about her writing craft.

One of the things Smith does in her essay is describe the phases of a novel’s composition. In discussing this essay with my students, I asked them to consider the steps or stages they go through when working on a paper, and I in turn considered the steps I go through when crafting a blog post.

  1. Start by writing by hand, in a notebook, about whatever comes to mind.
  2. Go back and type up relevant or usable bits from that hand-written first draft, wordsmithing sentences as I go.
  3. Re-read the entire thing, adding transitions, deleting redundant or clunky passages, and adding additional paragraphs or a conclusion as necessary
  4. Add a photo, decide on a tagline for social media, and publish.

This first approach is the ideal workflow for me: start by writing by hand, usually with no (or only a vague) idea of what I want to say. But when life is busy, sometimes the process looks more like this:

  1. Open Google Docs
  2. Start typing on a broad topic, agonizing over sentences as I write
  3. Step 3: Re-read, revise, and post as described above.

This second approach is quicker insofar as I eliminate the step of writing by hand…but it’s more tortuous. If I start with writing by hand, my thoughts flow more quickly and naturally. For me, thinking on paper is akin to thinking out loud, but safer: only I see that initial scribbled draft. When I write by hand in my journal, I’m chasing ideas, not wordsmithing sentences. This means my ideas come out fresh and raw, with the reassuring knowledge that I’ll make them pretty later.

If I go straight to typing, my attitude toward composition is different. I’m more hesitant and halting. I pause over sentences and go back to re-read, spending as much time going backwards as going forwards. Although these typed drafts are still rough, they feel more formal and intimidating. I’m more mindful of audience–that is, the fact that someone will eventually read this–and that makes me spend more time hemming and hawing over every sentence..

If blog-writing Process One is my most ideal writing scenario and Process Two is what I do when life gets busy, blog-writing Process Three is what I rely upon when I’m even busier. When I’m really, really busy, I sometimes post directly to the WordPress app on my phone, typing with my thumbs to comment on a picture I’ve uploaded. But this third approach is so far from my ideal, I hesitate to even mention it.


Do the math

My Babson students are currently working on a project my Framingham State students will start next week: a theory of writing. This assignment comes at the almost-end of a semester that started with students writing a literacy narrative, so I’ve been envisioning the term as coming full circle. In September, I asked students to reflect upon a specific event that shaped their attitudes toward reading and writing, and now in November, I’m asking them to articulate the larger role writing plays in their intellectual life.

Writers love to write about writing. When we started working on this project, I asked students to read Zadie Smith’s “That Crafty Feeling” as an entry into the genre of writers examining their craft, and I also pointed students toward my blog category on “Writing & Creativity.” But if you’re a first-year college student who has written a lot for school but don’t necessarily see yourself as a capital-W Writer, it can be daunting to try to explain the larger role writing plays in your life.

I feel bad for students who have spent twelve years of their young lives writing predominantly for teachers. We learn spoken language naturally, babbling then chattering as children, then continuing to talk as we grow older, but reading and writing must be taught. The compulsory nature of reading and writing–the fact that many students read and write only when required and only when graded–means many students see writing as a chore. How can you grow fluent in writing–how can you learn to think with your hand, which is how I describe my journal-keeping–if you only write with a teacher reading over your shoulder?

As a naturally bookish child, I was lucky: from an early age, reading and writing were my almost-native tongue. When students approach me and tentatively ask what I’m looking for in a given assignment, I have to stifle the urge to shout “How do I know what I’m looking for until you surprise me with what you’re thinking?” Until you learn to think for yourself–until you learn how to find then follow your own inner urge–lessons and practice and feedback will turn you into a compliant writer, not an insightful one.

I am, I’ve decided, a selfish writer: after years of journal-keeping, I recognize that I write primarily for myself, even when I have an ostensible audience. I write for my inner ear–my own sense, that is, of how a sentence should sound–and I write to make sense of things: for me, writing and thinking are almost one in the same. How can I know what I think until I’ve scribbled it out on the page, or found it under my keyboard-tapping fingers? Even after all these years of blogging, I realize my real audience is me–an audience of one–and everyone else is just eavesdropping.

Norway maple leaves

I’ve made a list of blog post topics for the coming days: one way of leveraging the law of momentum over the law of inertia. When you’re out of the practice of blogging, it feels impossible to think up topics to write about: when you aren’t writing, it is natural to believe you have nothing to say. This is the law of inertia: it’s difficult to start doing something you haven’t already been doing.

But once you start doing something, it’s easier to continue: this is the law of momentum. The more you write, the more you think of things to write about. The quality or brilliance of your thoughts doesn’t change; you just adjust your expectations. Instead of waiting for an Obviously Brilliant thought to show up, you learn to embrace ideas that are Good Enough. Once you do that, other Good-Enoughs come flooding in.

During the month of November, I’m trying to blog something–a photo and at least a sentence–every day, even if that means posting from my phone with my thumbs. Instead of “saving” my blog for longer posts about deep thoughts, I want to return to the habit of posting more frequently. If you lower your expectations far enough–only a sentence, nothing sustained or brilliant–the law of momentum takes over: one sentence leads to another, and one idea invites its friends.

Now at occasional moments throughout the day, I think of random ideas for blog posts: nothing profound, just a phrase or idea that’s good enough to spur a sentence. And now that I have some seeds for sentences, I have the antidote to inertia: a place to start and a way to get rolling. Once you set one word after another, the next will follow, then the next and the next and the next.


Noiseless, patient spider

This weekend I started reading Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights, which I have wanted to read since hearing him interviewed on NPR months ago, before the pandemic, when we took delights for granted.

Gay’s short, almost-daily essays about life’s simple pleasures read like blog or journal entries–in one of them, in fact, Gay talks about how his sentences unspool differently when he writes by hand, relishing what he calls the “the loop-de-looping” of written language.

I agree. Handwriting a long, wending sentence–a sentence that flows and meanders like water–feels different than typing a long, complicated sentence. The cursive of handwriting rolls and curves in a sinuous, continuous way that clackety-clack keyboard strikes do not. A typewriter or computer keyboard is a percussive instrument, whereas cursive words written by pen on paper are like woodwinds, melodious and fluid.

Reading Gay’s book reminds me of the days–the good old days–when I blogged frequently, almost daily, versus infrequently if at all. My blog used to be my online Book of Delights, each entry capturing the immediacy of daily life and its small joys.

I still faithfully write in my journal, but those pages don’t always capture delights. Instead, too often (especially during this pandemic) my journal has been a repository of worry and dismay: a Book of Frets and Grievances. And although Instagram is occasionally a place where I share photos of tiny delights, I save my blog for longer essays, and in so doing, I too often find I don’t have much to say or time to say it in.

I’d like to return to a more faithful practice of delight–an intentional practice of noticing, cataloguing, and sharing the things that bring me joy. Gay makes the process seem easy to do–it doesn’t take many words or much time to capture life’s simple pleasures.

Norway maple in bloom

Today has been sunny and brisk, and seeing the sun–or, more accurately, seeing sunlight–makes all the difference. In our backyard, the Norway maples are beginning to open hemispherical clusters of yellow flowers that look like pom-poms, and elsewhere on these same trees, new leaves unfold like praying hands.

This weekend on NPR, I heard a story about the Dear Stranger letter-writing project organized by Oregon Humanities. The letters they read on the air were delightful, poignant, and powerful. There is nothing more moving than a true experience honestly shared.

I stockpile stamps, postcards, and notecards in part because I love both paper and pretty things, but also because I love to send and receive old-fashioned, handwritten mail. The letters and postcards I send are the kind I would love to receive: do unto others and all that.

My blog is a kind of (virtual) Dear Stranger letter. Although I know some of my readers, many more lurk anonymously. Like Emily Dickinson (who in this age of quarantine is becoming my patron saint), I spend my days writing a letter to the world that never wrote to me.

People are too busy these days to write–to busy to write by hand–too busy to address and stamp an envelope. People are, in other words, Too Busy. Here we each sit in individual isolation, wrapping our Too Busy-ness around us like a comforting cloak. For as we are Too Busy, we are also Too Bored, somehow not knowing what to do with ourselves now that we have time, solitude, and our own alarming thoughts in abundance.

So this week, when others suggested buying stamps to save the United State Postal Service, of course I filled my online cart. I already had plenty of stamps, but now I have absolutely no excuse not to write to a dear stranger or two.

Journaling at Burdick's

This morning J had to wake before dawn for a work call, so after I finished my morning tasks, I drove to the Cambridge Zen Center, sat one meditation session, then walked to Harvard Square to write my morning journal pages at Burdick’s Cafe.

Although I was sleepy at the Zen Center, the brisk walk to Harvard Square and a small cup of high-octane Burdick’s dark chocolate woke me right up. Practicing at the Zen Center always feels like plugging into a power source: even during meditation sessions when my body nods and dozes, I can feel my inner battery charging with every breath. There’s something energizing about returning to a familiar place and a familiar practice, like climbing back into a well-worn saddle.

Reflective self portrait at Burdick's

When I lived at the Zen Center, I’d often go to Harvard Square, claim a table at a restaurant or cafe, and write in the bustling anonymity of a clean, well-lighted place. Burdick’s on a Sunday morning nicely suits this purpose. You can generally find a table for one if you wait for quiet couples to finish their beverages then bundle up to leave, and once you’re settled in, the waitstaff doesn’t care if you take a half hour or so to nurse your hot chocolate over journal pages or the morning paper.

Some days I bring stationery so I can write a quick, chocolate-fueled letter; today, it was just me and my notebook. Like meditation, journal-keeping is a habit I’ve practiced for decades, so doing it generates its own energy, like a turbine turning a gear. Meditation fills my lungs, walking gets my blood flowing, writing stimulates my brain, and high-octane dark chocolate gives me a buzz that lasts the whole day. This is how you weather a sleepy morning that started before dawn.

Halloween remnant

I start every morning with the same ritual, albeit at different wake-up times. J takes the dogs out and in, and I do a litany of kitchen tasks: load the dishwasher, take out the trash, clean the kitchen litter box, and give our three diabetic cats their breakfast and morning insulin.

Only then does my day splinter into particularity. On Mondays and Wednesdays, I walk the dog and do last minute class prep before leaving to teach at Babson; on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I head straight to Framingham State to teach until dark. Only on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays do I have the luxury of sitting at my desk, drinking a cup of tea, and writing a proper journal entry…unless, of course, I have meetings on campus or get waylaid by other obligations.

In theory, my teaching days include little pockets of time when I can scribble a few hurried lines: in my first year writing classes at Babson, for instance, we start class with five minutes of writing, and I’ve started doing this with my American Short Story students at Framingham State, as well. But I don’t usually have time to type up and blog these random scribbled bits, and my earnest intention to spend at least a few minutes journaling between classes is typically overruled by the demands of class prep and my ever-present paper piles.

Since my busy morning hours are my most predictable hours–after I’ve finished my daily kitchen tasks, who knows where the rest of my day will go–I’ve learned that if I take a few stolen moments to start even an embryonic blog post on my phone while doing morning kitchen tasks, I’m more likely to go back later in the day and finish it. But if I wait to start writing until after I get home from a long teaching day–and when you teach a double-load at two different colleges, all your teaching days are long–it’s immensely difficult to find the energy and inspiration to say anything other than “Today I taught and graded papers, again.”

What I’m learning, in other words, is that if you want to write often, you’d better write early. In the morning, the day is fresh and full of potential. Later in the day, your schedule is likely to careen completely out of your control.

I started writing this post by the light of day this morning…and only now have I gotten around to posting it well after dark.

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