Writing & creativity


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.

Japanese maple

This morning I woke up with an idea for a future blog entry: not this post, but one I might write tomorrow or the day after. This is, I’ve learned, how blogging goes. When you post regularly, ideas for entries fall out of thin air, but when you aren’t posting, ideas are hard to come by.

Writing, in other words, begets more writing, just as not writing leads to more of the same. When you do a thing, you build momentum, and when you aren’t doing that thing, you fall prey to inertia. This truth applies not just to writing but to all kinds of phenomena. It’s easier to save money if you have money. It’s easier to stay in shape than it is to get in shape. There’s no better way to meet people than to know people. The list of examples goes on and on.

This truth about momentum is why simply starting a task is so important. Keeping a habit is easier than making a habit, and continuing to do something is easier than getting started. During the months I barely blogged, I lacked either the time or inspiration to write. This month, though, I set my expectations as low as possible: every day, I want to post a picture and at least one sentence.

Since I was already in the habit of taking a photo a day, adding at least one sentence seemed attainable, and it is. And here’s the truth about sentences: they like to travel in groups. If you sit down to write a single sentence, it will attract another and another and another, just as a lone decoy attracts a bevy of ducks.

Frosted

My preferred mode of writing is by hand. I love the immediacy of setting pen to paper, and I love the actual materials involved: pens, paper, notebooks. Even on days I can’t write in my regular notebook, I carry a handful of note cards so I can dash off a letter or note of encouragement when the opportunity arises.

When I write for teaching or my blog, I use Google Drive to keep my documents in one place I can access from my home and work laptops alike. This summer when I swapped out my work laptop for a newer one, the campus IT guy was amazed to learn I had no files saved on the machine itself. Instead, all my lecture notes and other teaching documents live online so I can work on them on any machine from anywhere.

Through the technological wonder that is Google Drive, “any machine” includes both my tablet and (fortunately) phone. I can’t count the number of times I’ve found myself stuck in a line or waiting room, and instead of mindlessly scrolling through my social media feeds, I’ve pulled out my phone to work on whatever document needed my attention at the moment: the next day’s lecture notes, assignment guidelines for my students, or a blog entry.

When I write in my paper notebook, I enjoy the immediacy of tactile contact, the way a thought moves automatically from my brain down my arm, into my hand, and through my pen onto the page. Because I write by hand so much and so frequently, I sometimes say I’ve come to think with my left hand. The movement of thoughts into my typing fingers is similarly familiar but feels less intimate. The touch of laptop keys feels less organic to me than the touch of paper.

When I type on my phone, the experience is different still: not better or worse, just different. Unlike my students, who grew up texting, I am not a digital native. On my phone, I type with a combination of thumb and index finger. Despite many earnest attempts to master the skill, I still can’t swipe from one letter to the next. Instead, I laboriously tap out individual letters with my fingers, the smartphone equivalent of hunt-and-peck.

Still, I compose on my phone frequently enough that it too feels like a tool for writers. I might not be a digital native, but I’ve grown almost fluent in technology over time, almost reaching the point where I can think (and write) with my thumbs just as naturally as I do with my laptop-typing fingers. So this morning, I started this entry on my phone while the cats ate their breakfast, and I’m finishing it on my laptop after I’ve walked the dog, arrived back home, and settled at my desk with a cup of tea. Over time, this hybrid method of composition has become natural and even inevitable: simply the way we work these days.

Wood sorrel

What if discipline and habit are not the key to creativity? This morning as I sat reading then writing, a woodpecker called overhead; in the distance, a sparrow trilled. On sunny summer days like today, Toivo and I take a short stroll, then we settle on the patio to enjoy some fresh air before the day gets too hot. Opening my notebook without a particular topic to explore, my thoughts naturally turn to the question of inspiration.

Day lilies

My life revolves around the discipline of many schedules: the cats need to be fed and medicated specific times, the dog needs to be walked regularly, and there is always a daily litany of chores. I live most of my life at the mercy of schedules and checklists. Even when I’m not teaching–working for pay, that is–I’m always working. They say a woman’s work is never done, and although I can’t speak for men’s experience, as a woman I can say there is always something that needs to be done.

My perpetual goal–one that is perennially unsatisfied–is to perfect a routine where both work and chores unwind almost automatically: a time for everything, and everything done in time. For mindlessly repetitive tasks like scrubbing dishes or cleaning litter boxes, this approach works fairly well: my morning routine is so deeply ingrained, all I need to do is wake up, show up, and my daily tasks all but do themselves.

Spiderwort

Creative endeavors are different, though. Some days I show up at the page and the words are there waiting for me; other days, they are reluctant to come. I haven’t discerned, even after all these years of more or less daily writing, why I have Something To Say on some days but not on others. Is it something I can control by perfecting a smoother routine that lands me at the page well-read, well-fed, and well-rested? Or is it a matter outside my control, like the weather?

I’m coming to realize that discipline–the setting of and adhering to habits, which I am so very good at–is necessary but not sufficient. You need the discipline of hard work–the habit of showing up to the page whether you feel inspired or not–as much as a fire needs fuel. But discipline alone is like a dry pile of wood without a flame. I can religiously show up to the page, and I try my best to do so, but there is something else I can’t control. The blank page is kindling; the inspiration, a spark. In all my years of writing, writing, writing, I still can’t describe or explain why some days the lightning comes.

These past few months, my writing–both in my journal and on-blog–has been uninspired, my mind mired with the muck of an unremarkable life. But some days, I look up right as a hawk slices silently across the sky. Why does randomness happen: why do stars and starlings fall? As I write these words, a pair of titmice set up to scolding in a nearby hedge. Why here, why now? Or better yet, why not? Perhaps hawks fly and titmice scold at all and random hours, and occasionally the disciplined ones are lucky enough to notice. Isn’t this reason enough to keep watch?

Babson redtail

The best time of day for writing is the early morning, before the rest of the world is awake–but the next best time is long after dark, when the earth herself is leaning toward sleep. On a cold winter’s night, you can almost hear the darkness, the hush of your neighbors tucked into their houses entirely different from the sound of midday, when cars zoom and dog-walkers pass.

Don't tell me I'm the only one who takes pictures like this to find my car.

The worst time to write is afternoon, when the world is restless and your body weary. A writer should ideally be awake when others are sleeping, or watchful while others are oblivious. In the afternoon, the eyes of the world are casting about, hungry, and my own eyes feel heavy. Better to wait until one’s soul is completely depleted, spent with the exertion of the day, because then you come to the page empty-handed and defenseless, your first-thoughts bleeding onto the page without impediment. In the early morning and late evening–before dawn or after dark, when others are asleep in the beds or mesmerized by their own distant, private pursuits–you come to the page raw and without pretense, your guile stripped away by the sheer exertion of being.

Babson College

This open-eyed, undefended perspective–this stance of standing like a bare nerve, ever-sensitive and reactive, watchful and incapable of fleeing–is how I picture May Oliver, writing, her poetry offering a clear mirror into truths that anyone with open eyes could see, but which are so rarely recognized. Oliver had a gift of observation, which means she had a firm grasp of the obvious–a phrase that sounds like an insult but is the highest praise. Most of us fool ourselves by clamoring after the remarkable and spectacular, thereby missing the all-abiding wonder that is our miraculous hand right in front of our ever-wonderous nose.

These are the words that poured out tonight when I sat down belatedly to write my daily journal pages. In the morning, I attended a faculty retreat at Babson College, where someone recalled a colleague who often used the phrase “a firm grasp of the obvious” to pooh-pooh the presumably pedestrian observations of his co-workers: an indirect insult. After I’d heard of poet Mary Oliver’s passing today, however, the phrase took a different meaning in my mind.

Oonas

Today I’m finally getting around to the mundane task of shelving the past few years’ worth of Moleskine notebooks. Every time I fill a notebook with journal entries, I add it to a pile in my closet, and when that pile starts to loom too ominously, I take each notebook, use a silver Sharpie to write the relevant dates on the spine, and then shelve it alongside its fellows.

Worth a shot

Today’s closet pile contains the ten notebooks I’ve filled since July, 2015. When I shelve my journals, I occasionally dip into a random entry or two to see what I was doing or thinking at any given point in my past. (Spoiler alert: the things I was doing on any random day in 2015, the year after, or the year after that are largely the same as what I did yesterday or today. The more the dates on the calendar change, the more human nature and a thing called karma stay the same.)

And so on Saturday, November 21, 2015, I was reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, which I had mixed feelings about:

Art, etc.

I don’t buy Gilbert’s glowing talk of magic, but I agree with what she says about permission. It is too easy to fall into the trap of seeking either permission or legitimacy rather than simply doing what you do because you enjoy doing it.

The only thing keeping me blogging all these years is the fact I enjoy it, and the only thing that’s kept me teaching all these years (even in the face of perpetual disappointment) is the fact I can’t picture myself doing anything else. In some cases, it pays to be stubborn, just keeping one’s head down doing one’s thing because that’s how you work–slowly and gradually, like water wearing away stone.

My life’s work of blog and journal entries has grown like a stalagmite, each drop gradually growing the thing incrementally. You can’t see the progress–it’s too slow for that–but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening.

Enter only

Three years and a couple months after writing those works, they still ring true. I’m still stubbornly journaling, blogging, and teaching even though none of those activities have led to consistently full-time employment: I just journal, blog, and teach because these are the things I do. The motivation is both internal and intrinsic: if I weren’t writing and teaching, I don’t know what else I’d do with myself. So page by page, day by day, I build up a stack of notebooks that gather dust on my shelves: a life in handwritten lines.

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