Snowy magnolia

We’re at the point of the semester when I have little time to write: right now my paper-piles loom large, and there are emails to answer and classes to prep. My colleagues are similarly stressed–the typical college semester is emotionally grueling for both faculty and students alike–and while I know I’ll catch up with my grading and other teaching tasks eventually, I lament every moment of lost writing time.

Snow on forsythia

During busy times when I don’t have much time to write, I grow anxious and unsettled, fretting like a dog separated from her pups. Writing isn’t simply a job or pastime for me: it’s how I process my inner world. When I’m not writing, I’m not taking time to make sense of my life: writing even more than meditation is the keel that keeps me upright and centered.

These days when I do find time to show up at my notebook, I come to the page feeling scattered and disjointed: uninspired. After even a few days away from my journal, I’m rusty when I return, having forgotten the route a feeble, circuitous thought takes from brain to hand then onto the page.

Winter into spring

What works, I know, is to write everyday. When I’m writing regularly, my thoughts flow automatically onto the page, my writing hand serving like an extension of my brain and my pen another finger. When I’m writing regularly, filling pages is no problem, even when I think I don’t have anything to say. When I sit and place pen to paper, the words simply appear: the secret to writing, I’ve discovered, is simply to be there with pen in hand, ready for whatever appears.

There’s an old Zen story about a young orphan living in a lonely monastery. An old monk tells the boy that if he sits in front of a certain shoji screen, an ox will eventually appear. The initial admonition to wait for the ox is a trick to keep an antsy boy occupied, like telling a child to sprinkle salt on a bird’s tail. But after the boy sits a long and faithful vigil, an ox does indeed arrive, leaping through the screen and astonishing both the boy and elderly monk alike.

Snow magnolia

Writing journal pages is a bit like sitting in front of a shoji screen, waiting. For months on end, you see nothing inspiring; instead, you face an expanse of blank paper that seems as impenetrable as any brick wall. But one day when you’ve nearly given up all hope, the ox of inspiration charges through the paper and carries you away, amazed. You never know in advance when this moment will come, and this is why you spend many lonely hours with eyes open and pen in hand, waiting for the words appear.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Today I sorted through a dozen photos I’d taken when J and I saw an exhibit of model planes, trains, and automobiles at the Museum of Fine Arts last December. That exhibit is long gone, so it was fun to revisit photos I’d left on my camera and nearly forgotten about.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

I enjoy reliving art exhibits when I go through my pictures, regardless of how much time has passed in the meantime. Sometimes when I’m looking for inspiration, I’ll click through my Flickr albums of past exhibits as a way to nudge my Muse. Even if I don’t “use” any of these archived photos in a blog post, I do “use” them as visual prompts: something to look at to stir my creativity, like smelling salts used to revise an unresponsive patient.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Looking at pictures stimulates my noticing muscle, and for me, noticing anything interesting–whether that be an unusual idea or intriguing angle–quickly converts to language. When I notice something interesting, my Inner Narrator perks up and wants to understand and explain that thing. Even if I”m writing about something completely different from whatever I”m looking at, the act of looking seems helpful, even if only as a distraction: something to pull me outside myself, and something for me to fiddle with, like intellectual worry beads.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

I suppose there are people who use music in this way, a backdrop of sound serving to invigorate, inspire, and drown out distractions. For me, though, sight is more evocative than sound. I’m adept at ignoring sounds–a skill I acquired after being married to a musician for more than a decade–so sight is the sense that most directly gets me thinking. When I look at something closely, a string of sentences automatically appears and ultimately accumulates into some sort of narrative.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

This is why I stockpile pictures from museum visits. Those visits are an immediate inspiration, lighting up a visual part of my brain that isn’t accessible any other way. But long after that immediate inspiration fades, my photos remain like preserves stocked on cerebral shelves: flavors from an earlier abundance.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Henry David Thoreau famously said that firewood warms you twice: once when you chop it, and once when you burn it. In a similar vein, I find that art inspires me twice: once when I see it in person, and once when I revisit my pictures, stashed away like souvenirs from inspiration gone by.

The Wall at Central Square

One day last week while I was writing my hour, a curious thing happened. I came to the page uninspired: my promise to write was my only goad. On days when I’m uninspired, writing my hour feels like pure drudgery: more an act of will than creativity as each word ticks by like a slow-moving second-hand inching bit by bit closer to “done.”

The Wall at Central Square

But then, a pair of words appeared. I’d been describing a wending and rambling drive J and I had taken and how it took us through nearby neighborhoods I’d never seen. Isn’t it interesting, I wrote, how you can live in a place for years without exploring all of its streets, your feet following well-worn and familiar paths. This in turn reminded me how I learned to navigate Boston when I first moved here and relied upon public transportation, my knowledge of the city growing in discrete, piecemeal patches every time I explored a new-to-me subway stop and the neighborhood within walking distance of it. My knowledge of Boston was like a map drawn by foot, with scattered pockets that were explored and familiar while the largest portions remained unmapped and foreign: an inland archipelago of known neighborhoods stranded like islands in a vast and largely unknown landscape.

The Wall at Central Square

“Inland archipelagos” was the magic phrase: two words that shimmered to the surface of consciousness, announcing themselves as the title of an essay I’ve only begun to write. Those two words served as a kind of guiding or governing concept: the one central “hook” from which you can hang an entire narrative. Some writers need to start with a first line or a central image; some writers need to start with a title rather than discovering it by accident halfway between “I don’t know what to write” and “Done.” In my experience, though, the first line, central image, title, or other guiding concept doesn’t typically come first: instead, it arises only after I’ve groped around in the dark for a while, writing a meandering series of sentences that (seemingly) head nowhere.

The Wall at Central Square

I’ve been writing long enough to recognize that this is how it typically happens: I find a subject to write about only after I’ve started writing. I often think of this as being like a runner settling into stride: you start off stiff and awkward, but gradually you relax into a comfortable pace…but that will never happen until you lace up shoes and get moving. You’ll never find your stride unless you stand up first.

The Wall at Central Square

When I write my daily journal pages, this settling-into-stride often happens around the third page, the first two pages serving as a kind of warm-up where I rehearse the mundane details of the day. Those first two pages are like the casual chitchat workers engage in at the start of a meeting, catching up with what’s new before their boss clears her throat and announces, “I called you together today to discuss…” That ellipsis is the crux of the matter—the matter of substance—the magical transition between “How are you” and “Let’s get to work.”

The Wall at Central Square

Sometimes, that matter of substance appears in the form of a title, or a first line, or concluding remark: “Here is something I want to write a longer essay about.” Other times, a subject simply arises without announcing itself: suddenly one sentence leads to another, one paragraph leads to the next, and the next thing I know, I’ve written an essay where once there was nothing: spontaneous inspiration.

The Wall at Central Square

This proliferation of words is like an amoeba dividing or a cancer cell multiplying: an insubstantial thing becoming something with real matter and heft. Suddenly you realize the coarse stuff in your hand can be spun into something fine, long, and strong. You’ve literally found your material, a sturdy textile of text that’s stronger than steel.