In clover

I rarely sit down to write with a specific thing in mind; instead, I wait to see where the words lead. This means the first few paragraphs of my daily journal pages are often a scattershot account of mundane concerns and quibbles. Only after the first few paragraphs have made their way from brain to page do I settle into the deeper, more substantial stuff that’s on my mind: the inner tune I’m humming beneath the surface static.

Yellow vetch and red clover

For this reason, I often tell my students to start revising early drafts by deleting their intro paragraph, especially if their second paragraph does a better job of cutting to the chase. Intro paragraphs (and especially opening lines) are difficult to write: most of us don’t get them right on the first try, especially if we start out not knowing exactly what we want to say.

Instead of assailing readers with the rhetorical equivalent of throat-clearing and ahem-ing, start with a paragraph that goes straight for the jugular. Especially if you’re writing a short piece, there is no time for dilly-dallying.

Reggie takes a swim

After taking my time deciding upon a project for the summer, I’ve started to revisit the blog entries I wrote from 2003 until 2006: that is, the years I lived full-time in Keene, New Hampshire, before I met J and moved to Massachusetts.

Water lily

When I first started blogging in December of 2003, my then-husband and I had lived in Keene for a couple months, and blogging was one of the ways I made myself at home in a town that was new to me. Taking pictures and writing about my daily dog-walks helped me find my way both literally and figuratively. When my then-husband and I separated and then divorced in 2004, blogging helped me navigate the alien landscape of my solitary life in a town some 700 miles from my family. During a particularly tenuous time, writing about my life helped me make sense of my life.

Pickerelweed

It’s been more than ten years since my first husband and I divorced, so revisiting the posts I wrote both before and after that event is a strange experience. Some aspects of my life in Keene are still crystal clear, but others have grown foggy with time. I vividly remember the dog-walks I took with Reggie along the Ashuelot River and around Goose Pond, for instance, but it seems like a lifetime ago that I lived alone in an apartment within walking distance of Keene State College. Revisiting the posts I wrote then is like bumping into an old friend on the street: here is a person I was intimately acquainted with, but we’ve lost touch.

Pickerelweed

Ultimately, I’d like to collate these several years’ worth of posts into a single year, just as Henry David Thoreau combined the two years he lived at Walden Pond into the single seasonal cycle recounted in Walden. Just as I love May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude for its clear-eyed account of her life as a writer in Nelson, New Hampshire, I’d like to distill my own experience in Keene into its barest, most essential truths. I moved to Keene as one half of a couple, but I ultimately lived there longer as a single woman than I had as a wife. How is it, I wonder, that solitary souls like Thoreau, Sarton, and myself found our way in our respective hometowns?

Reggie goes wading

As I work on this project, I find myself wondering how people who don’t write–people who don’t have the memory aid of a journal or blog–go about processing their pasts. I don’t have a particularly strong memory, so I rely heavily upon my journal, blog, and photo archives to remind me of where I was and what I was doing last month, last year, or last decade: without this record, I think my life would quickly fade into fog. It’s a psychological truism that we should learn from our mistakes, but to do this, we need to remember and revisit our past actions. If something as life-changing as my own divorce has already started to fade from memory, how can I internalize its lessons? Or do fading memories indicate an experience that has been gradually digested down to the dregs?

I shot the photos illustrating today’s post on a hot day in July, 2005, when Reggie and I went walking at Keene’s Ashuelot River Park.

Fallen leaf on chrysanthemum

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.

Chysanthemums

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?

Fall fungus

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.

Mushrooms on tree trunk

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.

Bittersweet nightshade berries

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.

Mushrooms on tree trunk

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.

Honey bee on New England asters

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.

Virginia creeper leaf

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.

Tinged

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.

Virginia creeper

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.

Virginia creeper and asters

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.

Turning

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.

Creeping

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.

New leaves

This past week, I’ve returned to my usual routine of writing morning pages after a week or so of being too busy to write. For writing instructors, April is a busy time–the cruellest month–as we’re neck-deep in drafts from our students’ semester-long projects: a recurring cycle of writing, reading, and re-visiting as students and instructor alike rehearse their same old thoughts in search of something new.

Almost forsythia

Revising is largely a matter of courage: the courage to return to something you said yesterday, last week, or last month to see what (if anything) can be recycled, reused, or re-purposed. Returning to a neglected notebook demands a similar kind of courage. When I was new to journaling, I’d despair whenever I missed a few morning writing sessions, sure I’d never establish a lasting habit if I allowed myself to miss days at a time. Now that I’ve been keeping morning pages for years, however, I know better. Now that keeping morning pages is an established part of my morning routine most days, I know that occasionally missing a day here or there won’t destroy that established habit. What’s important is the underlying pattern: a settled sense that even if I fall off the bandwagon today, I’ll surely climb back on it tomorrow.

Heal all

Over the years of keeping morning pages, I’ve learned that the simple act of keeping them is the point. It doesn’t matter what I say in my journal, but it matters that I do say something: it matters that I show up. It turns out that most spiritual disciplines are like that. Did you show up, and did you stay? And if you didn’t stay, did you at least come back, and do you keep coming back, again and again, no matter what the result, even when you’re not sure whether your practice is actually working?

If you keep showing up–if you keep returning–the pages and the practice are working. The simple fact of returning is the whole and entire point. This is true in writing and meditation alike. It doesn’t matter if you miss days or weeks in your journal if you subsequently return to the page, and it doesn’t matter if your mind wanders countless times while you’re meditating if you subsequently notice it wandering and then bring it back, bring it back, bring it back. If you keep showing up–if you keep coming back–if you keep try, try, trying–the words, the practice, the discipline won’t fail you. Words will appear under your pen; strength and stability will sprout beneath your rising and falling ribcage, as present as any breath. If you show up in prayer sincerely seeking the face of God, God’s face will appear to you, albeit in a guise you might not recognize. Ask, seek, knock, and return, return, and return. This is the universal truth of both spirituality and creativity.

Heather blossoms

Last month in a consulting interview, I described our inherent Buddha-nature like this. There is inside us a loving, compassionate being who wants nothing more than for us to wake up to our clear-minded and selfless potential. This being sits by our side like a patient grandmother, lovingly watching our every breath as we sleep in muddle-headed ignorance, looking for any sign we might stir. We might be sleeping late because we are sick; we might be sleeping late because we are drunk. Our Inner Grandmother doesn’t care: she just wants us to wake up, come home, and be present.

Our Inner Grandmother ultimately doesn’t care how long we slumber in our own selfishness; she’s patient and has brought plenty of knitting. Whenever it is that we stir and finally open one eye then the other, our Buddha-nature will sit up in her seat, smiling with kind eyes as she hands us the cup of tea she’s kept warm for us. It doesn’t matter to our Inner Grandmother how long we take to come home to the blank page, our meditation cushion, or our own true nature; what matters to our Inner Grandmother is that like a long-awaited spring, we finally return.

Glass globes with shop window reflections

It’s Finals Week at Keene State, so after holding one last round of office hours last night, today I’ll collect two batches of student essay portfolios, followed by a third on Thursday. Although I complain every year about my paper piles, I actually like Finals Week. After three months running myself ragged commenting on endless piles of student drafts, it’s nice to have an entire week devoted to one last read-through of final papers. Everything my students and I have been doing for the past three months culminates in these final portfolios, which represent a semester’s worth of procrastination, sweat, and tears.

Horse and Buggy Feeds with tree-shadow

One of my favorite pictures from this year’s Boston Marathon shows someone holding a hand-lettered sign at the base of Heartbreak Hill: “Get to it and do it!” Runners train for months, if not longer, for any given marathon, and runners training for the Boston Marathon steel themselves for the series of four hills they’ll face in Newton, approximately 16 to 20 miles into the race. Heartbreak Hill isn’t steep, with a vertical rise of “only” 88 feet, but it comes right at the moment when many runners are starting to lag. The mental challenge of any marathon is to get to any obstacle and do it, even (especially!) when you’re feeling the most tired.

For college students and instructors alike, Finals Week is a bit like Heartbreak Hill: most of the challenge is mental. After three months of writing and re-writing (or reading and re-reading) the same semester-long projects, students and instructors alike are eager for this race to be over. But between now and the finish line are a finite number of steps, and none can be skipped: the way you surmount the heartbreaking hill at mile 20 is the same way you ran all the previous miles, one step at a time.

Alley with graffiti

Last Thursday when I gave my final set of rough draft comments to my Thinking & Writing students, I could see in their body language how well these first-year “runners” were holding up in this semester’s “race.” Several of my students read my draft comments, sighed with determination, and put their papers down with a nod: yes. Seeing the contours of this particular hill, they resigned themselves to do it, knowing this last burst of sleepless nights and early morning revisions would sail them through the semester’s finish-line.

A few other students, though, were feeling the race weigh heavy in their bones: I could see it in the slump of their shoulders. “Is this a D paper,” one student glumly asked in response to my rough draft comments, and my assurances that it could be a much better paper if she applied to it the same self-confidence and assurance she demonstrated in several in-class freewriting sessions did little to cheer her. Knowing you have an uphill climb right when you’re feeling the most tired and demoralized is heartbreaking, and it takes more than reminders to keep going to keep your spirits up. Now that we’ve entered the final push of the semester, the main thing separating the students who end up doing well and the ones who end up crumpled and cramped on the side of the road is the sheer willpower and determination to keep running, step by step and word by word.

Labyrinth parking

I haven’t blogged since the end of NaBloPoMo mainly because we’ve reached the almost-end of the semester and my daily to-do lists have me running in circles.

Coiled

I’ve written before about the circular shape of the last month of the semester, when “there’s no stopping the madly-out-of-control merry-go-round that is the life of a writing instructor: assign it, collect it, read and comment upon it, return it…then repeat, repeat, and repeat.” This stage of the semester is entirely predictable–you revisit it twice a year, in winter and spring–but it always feels a bit surprising nevertheless. Oh, yes…here we go again!

The madly cyclic, circular loop that is the last month of any academic semester feels labyrinthine while you trudge its long and winding path. You can see the end of the semester, which seems alluringly close, but there’s no shortcut around the winding way you have to tread to get to that endpoint. Whereas you can get lost in a maze, there’s no getting lost in a labyrinth: you just have to be patient enough to keep walking, step by step, until you reach (and return from) the end.

Winding

As exhaustingly repetitive it feels as a writing instructor to keep collecting and commenting on subsequent drafts of the same semester-long research projects, the monotony of this seemingly endless feedback loop merely mirrors the repetitive tasks my students themselves are facing. For an entire semester, my Thinking & Writing and Creative Nonfiction students have been chipping away at their essays, one word (and one research source) at a time. Right about now, my students are ready to be done with their projects, and I’m ready for them to be done, too.

At times, revision feels like you’re revisiting the same ideas over and over as you pore over the stubborn knots in your thinking. The overwhelming enormity of writing a semester-long project and the sheer monotony of the effort it takes to actually do it are again labyrinthine: “The message of a labyrinth is to persevere–take the next step–keep going even if the way seems long or confusing. You will get there, and back, safely, a labyrinth seems to reassure. Take care with this next step, and peace will follow all the rest.”

Parking lot labyrinth

It’s a lesson that’s easy to forget, even if you revisit it twice a year, every year. It’s a lesson that bears repeating not just to my students, but to myself: the end will come eventually–soon enough, but not a moment too soon–but you have to keep walking every last step to reach it.

Yes, it’s true: there’s a painted labyrinth in a parking lot off Church Street in downtown Keene…and there always seems to be at least one car parked right on top of it.

Rose of Sharon seed pods

It’s a simple fact of teaching I re-discover every year: the semester invariably follows its own rhythms, cycles, and moods. Yesterday at Keene State, my usually lonely office hour was devoted to two students who came to talk about their semester-long research projects without any prompting from me. After eleven weeks of researching and writing intentionally messy early drafts, we’re now turning into the backstretch of the semester: time to start revisiting those messy drafts, cutting redundancies, and tightening the organization. After eleven weeks of brainstorming, generating, and accumulating, now comes the season for revising, pruning, and tidying, and that always inspires a handful of early-bird students to seek me out, nervously wondering how they’ll ever get a handle on the big ideas they’ve been wrestling all semester.

Bluish

Every semester–every writing project–follows this life-cycle, and every semester I forget the predictable pattern. Somewhere around five weeks into the semester comes the first wave of disenchantment as students want to change topics and instructors want to change careers; somewhere around nine weeks into the semester, I’ve given up all hope of ever getting to the bottom of my omnipresent paper-piles. And then right about now, Week 12, as we head into the last month of the semester, something changes. The drafts are still messy, but one by one, I see students starting to take tentative ownership of their projects. Instead of me cajoling, pleading, and nagging in my draft comments–instead of me feeling like I’m spending more time thinking about their topics than some of them are–I see my students starting to find their own voices, their own perspectives, their own ideas.

Rose of Sharon seed pod

Novelists insist that if you work on a narrative long enough, the characters take on a life of their own, and I’ve seen the same thing happen with semester-long research topics. At a certain point of the semester, my students’ topics truly become “theirs.” Instead of asking in various roundabout ways “what I’m looking for” in their papers, right about now my students are starting to get a clearer sense of what they want to say. This isn’t an easy transition: ripening is always a tenuous moment. It can be frightening to realize your writing instructor really does want you to have ideas of your own, and it can be frightening to realize your writing instructor really does want you to express those ideas. It can be frightening, also, to realize that your research, while helpful, will not give you The Final Answer to the big questions you’re pondering.

Planetree leaves

It’s easy, too, for a nervous or inexperienced writing instructor to step in too quickly, to kill a student’s embryonic ideas with over-coddling. “Here, let me show you” or “Why don’t you do it this way” sound like helpful feedback or well-intentioned guidance, but these also might indicate an instructor who’s not willing to step back and watch as a student does her or his own intellectual heavy lifting. A coach can model and reinforce proper form, but she can’t enter the field of play. Ultimately it’s the players’ game, not the coach’s, and her proper place is on the sidelines, watching and shouting and hoping.

I’ve taught long enough to know that the biggest a-ha moments won’t happen until December, when the end of the semester is just weeks (or one week!) away. So far, the seeds of the semester have been gestating in the slow, steady heat of a temperate season, but come December, my students and their ideas will bloom like hothouse flowers forced into opening, never a moment too soon.