Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Badger yourself to better writing habits



A friend of mine has gone a long time without writing poetry.

It bothers her. She defines herself as a poet, and because she is well published, poetry feels to her like it is the key to a better future. But nevertheless, she says that she seldom finds time to write, and when she does, the words don’t come.

“I need something to change,” she told me. “I need to make something change.”

I know what she means. This is one of my first regular blog posts in quite some time, and that’s only half by design. Life got busy and I had to let something go. To be honest, I had to let several things go. I’m having a dry spell, too, poetically speaking.

And here I am at the end of a semester of teaching with the summer looming before me. It feels good—no one needs anything from me for the first time in a long while. I have no appointments. My things-to-do list is entirely self-determined, and today it has one thing on it: Write this blog post.

Poetry remains conspicuously absent. Do you ever feel like I do—like your creative work is something you need to sneak up on? Sometimes my orange tabby cat gets out of the house. Escape is always on his mind, but he’s terrible at it. He’ll dash to the neighbor’s bush and stand under it. From that point I just reach in and grab him by the scruff of the neck—something I would never do under ordinary circumstances—and I put him back in his safe, non-bird-killing, unsquashable-by-car space.

The writing is like this, for me, anyway. It seems very elusive, but when I sit down, I can coax it out of the bushes. The comparison falls apart a bit here, because it’s not my desire to put it in a safe space, but rather to play in the traffic of the psyche. I think writing can be a little dangerous when you do it right. Poetry, in particular, is uncomfortable. There are a lot of ways to write a poem, but for me, it’s very much a process of taking my actual pain and making art out of it. Other poets may work differently, but I don’t find the practice the least bit fun.

Is it any wonder we let it slip? If our art form were something like tickle-fighting or sundae-eating, we’d never miss a day.

Maybe there was a time when writers had plenty of minutes to think and to play with words; I’m no historian, but it seems like the Transcendentalists and the Romantics spent their days walking and writing and bullshitting. Having money helped then, just like it does now, and so did having friends with money to mooch off of. But for the average Joe, or more specifically, the average Jane, I do know this: There was a time when doing laundry started with manufacturing soap out of ashes and beef tallow, and it ended with washboard-scrubbing and wringing. When could Jane write, much less ramble and get high on laudanum and swim in the Gulf of Spezia?

And I guess my friend and I are modern-day versions of Jane. While the laudanum and the Tyrrhenian Sea weren’t strictly necessary for writing, no one really wants to read poems about laundry, and no one wants to read about grading college students’ essays, either. Work gets in the way of writing time, and it also gets in the way of having experiences that lend themselves to writing—even the experience of wool-gathering while spotting animal shapes in the clouds.

I know this about writing: It has always taken me back. Like my friend, I’ve had dry days that have turned into dry weeks and months and even, I regret to say it, years. But when I’ve felt ready to go back in to those bushes, they were there—and there was nothing that said I needed to wait calmly to be lugged back to safety.

My cat is very gentle and would never bite or scratch. Maybe he should. Maybe that goldfinch is as delicious as she seems, and maybe he ought to try harder to consume her and her song.

Again, it’s a faulty metaphor. Unlike the typical house cat, killing up to twenty songbirds each year, my poetry doesn’t hurt anyone. Rather, it makes the world better—a little more gentle and less perplexing, at least for me.

The trick—for me, and for my friend—is to set some goals and to make the time to reach them. I am ready to have a word-rich summer, and so I’m starting out by making a plan.

***


Are you interested in setting some goals for your summer writing projects? I have a new personal training program for writers that I call “The Badger.” For the month of June or July—or for both—you set the goals and I “badger” you every day with prompts, check-ins, light feedback, and whatever other help you need to get where you want to go. Check it out! 

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