Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Basic ethics of the literary book review

It’s a conundrum. We literary writers frequently publish on small presses, and it can be hard to catch the attention of major review outlets, like Publisher’s Weekly or Kirkus Reviews

Poets have it worse than writers of other genres. Kirkus, for instance, doesn’t even review poetry except for pay—currently starting at $425. But that doesn’t mean it’s an easy feat for a prose literary title on a small or university press to get traction.

But aside from the major outlets, it’s hard to find anyone to review our titles, even in more small-press-friendly litmags. Often it seems that the same small-press titles get all of the attention, and I’m not sure that the quality of the writing is the reason. A standout title or a timely theme can be just as big as factors.

Make no mistake: We want reviews because we want readers. Our hard work demands that we find an audience for the books we publish; sometime it seems as though the stories, poems, and essays themselves stand up and demand to be heard.

But our desire to find reviewers can lead us to what the journalist in me regards as missteps—practices I’d caution us away from.

Several of my social media circles are inhabited by authors, and every now and then, someone will chime in with the idea that members trade reviews—a you-do-me-and-I’ll-do-you kind of arrangement.

This is a very efficient plan; two books get reviewed where none before did. I find that it’s not so hard to publish a review. Many magazines that are too low-budget to pay reviewers are hungry for this kind of free content, and as long as their length and style guidelines are followed, they’ll provide a hungry yes to a review submission.

The problem is that a reader trusts a reviewer to be honest and candid about a book’s merits. Even if some journals publish only recommendations instead of reviews, the reader believes that a recommendation is based on literary merit, and not tit for tat.

In my undergraduate journalism education, a course on reviewing was a required part of the curriculum. Mostly we all went to a classroom at night and watched classic movies—All About Eve and Citizen Kane, for instance—and then wrote cheesy reviews of them. (Two thumbs up for Casablanca!) But in between installments from the Golden Age of Hollywood, my classmates and I actually did get a thorough grounding in this sort of criticism. What was drilled into us from start to finish was our ethical responsibility to our readers.

In short, a review is an opinion—ideally a very informed and educated opinion. I have no palate to speak of, so it would be ridiculous for me to write a review of the cuisine in a high-end restaurant. I just like to eat, and a lot of things taste really good to me. I’m simple like that.

A restaurant reviewer should know quite a bit about kitchen chemistry and processes, and about culinary history and trends. A nice meal costs a little more than this consumer can easily afford, so when I do go out, I’d like to know what I’m getting into, and whether Restaurant A is a better choice than Restaurant B. Reviews can make a difference in how I spend my (meager) resources.

Ditto with movie reviews. A reviewer who understands storytelling, cinematography, acting, and culture can help me to make a good choice when I finally pay a babysitter and venture out to one of the two or three non-animated, non-superhero movies I’m likely to see in a given year.

Let’s presume that literary reviewers haven’t already lost their credibility with readers through back-scratch-trading with writers and favor-currying with publishers. Don’t we sort of look to book reviews in the same way? Something like half a million books are published each year in the U.S., and a new release can run in the $20 range. Where do we put our cash? Attention from reviewers can alert us to and pique our interest in new releases, and they can also help us choose from among all of the books vying for our attention. When these writers abuse our trust, there’s a sense that they’re playing fast and loose with our money.

Another ethical concern reviewers must be impartial. Just because a fellow writer is a friend doesn’t mean that the person has written a top-notch memoir. The opposite—the polar opposite—may be true. But we don’t trash our friends—that’s a different sort of baseline ethics, one from universe that is larger than the literary world.

But we shouldn’t review our friends. Even if we have the sort of near-superhuman power to be impartial, we must avoid the appearance of impartiality. Readers trust that we’re not beholden to the people whose work we’re reviewing, whether by money or love or common interest.

Along similar lines, a reviewer is ethically bound to be honest. We shouldn’t downplay flaws in a book, just as we shouldn’t be more effusive in our praise than the work merits. We should aim for accuracy in description and honesty in assessment. 

Additionally, a reviewer should be educated and informed, so that the assessment of the reviewer matters. When an impartial, honest, well-read reviewer offers effusive praise, it means something.

I should mention that some magazines shy away from negative reviews. After all, a book of poetry from a small press is pretty much destined to be ignored by the larger culture; there’s no sense in a journal kicking it when it’s down. I don’t actually object to this practice; why not recommend good books instead of blasting bad ones? The danger is that a reviewer might adapt an assessment to score the publication, rather than choosing to review books that merit a strong review.

As the author of one full-length poetry collection, with another on the way, I can attest that a positive review feels incomparably good. I appreciated the handful of reviews that appeared in literary publications, but I also loved seeing what my friends thought when they posted customer reviews in places like Amazon and Goodreads. 

I wish we had a vibrant reviewing culture—one in which authors don’t have to form secret reviewing circles for their books to get a little attention. Maybe instead of making pledges to one another, we should make a promise to literature that we’ll pay attention and spread the word.


Tuesday, January 9, 2018

When the poems don't come

Lately, I’ve been finding it hard to write poems.

With a second full-length collection coming out this summer, I should be hitting my poetic stride. Yet I can’t shake the sense that each time I write, I’m writing the very same poem—and that I’ve written the same poem over and over for years.

Sure, I alter bits—focus, diction, syntax, rhetoric, form—but what drives each poem feels inalterably the same. Each one stands as its own tiny chapter in an ongoing treatise on loss.

Poetry is my preferred genre—my “genre of choice” is another way of phrasing it, although poetry seems to have chosen me, rather than the other way around. I write what demands to be written, even if sometimes I first try to chase it away, like skunks from a garbage can, with noise and blue light. 

I find—I’ve always found—that I get very little pleasure from writing poems. I like it when they’re done—I’m proud of the artifacts—but pushing them out into the world is hard and painful work. When the writing isn’t hard, what comes out tends to be something other than a poem, or at least something besides a good one.

I’m decades in to being a poet, but it continues to hurt to write them. On those occasions when they don’t hurt, they read to me as either slick or incomplete. Maybe it’s that I have no skin in the game. Maybe I’m operating from the surface, the top of the head, rather than deeper down inside.

That’s a really apt metaphor, by the way. The intellect operates in a place beyond hurt. Things that come into poems as the product of active reasoning have little capacity for aching. Stitching together a logical if-then series of arguments isn’t a bruising strategy. Even the physical manifestations of mental gymnastics are mild. Maybe we squint a little.

In writing these deeper poems I’m referring to, I’ve found myself doubled over, rocking, clutching my gut. There can be physical pain with deep revelation. When the poetry is good, I’m convinced a higher power is talking to and through me. The only catch is that God speaks in a language of acid.
Let’s be clear: As I stated, this is, in fact, a metaphor. All thinking comes from the brain; we have no other organ with the capacity to reason or even to feel. We think we feel gravel with our feet until we sever our spine and feel nothing.
So this gut talk? That’s still referencing a cerebral process—but as is so often the case, the metaphor feels truer than anything we know about physiology. It is at once physiologically nonsensical and absolutely true that good poetry comes from the gut, and almost anyone who writes understands this to be true.
Throw in some spiritual talk about connecting with a higher intelligence (a god, a muse, the collective unconscious) to get at the heart of a poem, and you’re proving yourself to be willfully ignorant and beyond help—but there’s the voice again, teaching me things I didn’t consciously know.
If we concede that writing must go deeper than the intellect to reach the truths we’re hoping to find (and there’s no reason to believe this—I know plenty of poets who are heady and marvelous), and if we concede that going deep is generally painful, it’s clear why it’s so hard to sit at the writing desk some days.
I have a few methods I use to sneak up on myself, poetically, intellectually, and spiritually:

  • Writing upon waking. When we write while fresh out of bed, we’re closer to that storehouse of dream images, and to that profound intelligence that visits us when we sleep. Making writing the first thing we do provides a welcome shortcut into the mystical woods.

  • Relying on chance. Most insight I have comes when two unrelated things are ratcheted and bound together. These “things” can be images that play together in a fascinating, new way, or they can be words that I hadn’t associated with one another previously. Which cards does the fortune-teller throw down, order and direction random? Which words does the thesaurus pull up? (Fortune-teller, soothsayer, augur, diviner, clairvoyant ….)

  • Chanting. There are a lot of online videos of people chanting, including those offered in long syllables or those in different languages, like Latin or Sanskrit. I find that using my actual voice to chant warms up my poetic voice so that I’m more ready to meet the page.

  • Walking. In “On Walking,” Henry David Thoreau wrote of the value of walking in the wilderness, an activity he called sauntering, for shaking off the village and its cares. “What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?” he penned. I benefit greatly from being in the woods, and my writing thrives on the storehouse of images I see on even a short walk.

  • Taking political action. There’s a lot to contend with in the world, and thoughts of the environment being harmed, or of people being subjected to pain, can keep me from wanting to focus on my (selfish) thoughts. But a writer has to be self-ish. The self is the one who does the work, and it must be given rein. I find that if I spend a little time involved in action—letters to legislators, since writing is the way I know to have an impact on the world—I can give myself permission to do my private musing. One caveat: I wouldn’t write a letter to a senator immediately before writing. That’s pointing our consciousness in the wrong direction.

  • Jotting. Sometimes I like to write Jane Austen style—quickly jotting a few notes to chew on and then hiding them from view when someone enters the room. It’s a skill any parent-writer develops naturally, but it’s an excellent way to keep the consciousness alert and ready for when it’s time to approach the page.

Another good strategy is to write a blog post, I think—so now I’m off to write. We’ll see how it goes.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Another successful year? Depends on how you track it

I’m writing from the end of a marginally disappointing year and the start of a new one filled with promise. 

The fact is, all years are filled with promise at the start, and many disappoint at the end, or else feel kind of neutral. Very seldom do we look back with satisfaction at how much butt we kicked in the previous twelve months. Even when we kick butt, those butts left unkicked come more readily to view in all of their roseate kickability.

A lot of my writer friends are in the habit of reporting year-end stats: how many submissions they made, what percentage of submitted works were accepted, that kind of thing. I am a huge fan of goal setting and tracking, so I am all for this, even if I can’t participate very easily this year—my records are in chaos and I didn’t submit a whole lot anyway. I did publish my favorite flash fiction piece I’ve written, and an interview with it to boot, and that was very satisfying. But publishing activity is quite time consuming, and lack of time was the major theme of my 2017. I have to work very hard as an adjunct instructor to cobble together a living, and my spare time is mostly accounted for elsewhere.

When I see my friends posting outstanding stats, I feel excited for their progress. Good things are built from publishing individual works—book contracts, opportunities to read, careers, advancement. A lot of people I know work extremely hard on making their magic happen, and I am fully here for that.

Unfortunately, other friends report some despondency when they look back at the year just passed. Some submitted a lot but had poor results. Many, like me, didn’t submit much, and a few of these feel the weight of missed opportunities.

I do wonder if there’s not more value to tracking other factors than our submission flow-through. What if we were to quantify the words we wrote, for instance? (I do most of my poetry drafting longhand, often on handy scraps that I employ and promptly lose, so this is darn near unquantifiable for me, but the idea of counting words feels like a move in a good direction.)

What if, too, we were to count the finished works we created, whether good or bad—a count of the stuff that’s done? Then the end of the year would be spent not in a flurry of final submissions, but in nailing that final couplet on a sonnet or finally solving the problem of how to conclude that essay without resorting to bookending. I think I’d feel very satisfied closing out some drafts as I closed out the year.

And wouldn’t it be lovely if we had the discernment and self-love to assess the beauty we made in a given year? Or the truth we told? Or, embracing the Keatsean understanding, both?

I’ve had many poems that were non-starters that nevertheless had wisdom in them—an image or a line or a phrase that was just right, and that sang straight to the moon. But maybe the poem was a goner, and the snippet wouldn’t fit in another poem or story or essay. Maybe I gave up and posted it on social media. It was still true, right? Still beautiful? Where’s our count of that?

It’s my belief that for writers, a measure is more apt than a count. Rather than tapping each accomplishment on its head to account for it, it’s OK to look back on a year (or a life) and to see that there’s a lot there—the spirit had substance, and it’s impossible to throw our arms wide enough to take it all in.

When we’re writing, we’re allowing our very best selves a chance to be present. In my own private way of construing it, we’re tapping in to a higher intelligence that is allowed to express through us, and every moment spent at the page or in our imaginings is time that we allow wisdom and compassion to flow through us. Even if we have a different notion of the source of intelligence, wherever it comes from, we ought to give it opportunity to express, and that’s the very special thing that writers do.

Think of all the lesser things that took up our time in 2017—television reruns, “presidential” tweets, shaving, bagging leaves, sorting mail. So much of life happens without lyricism. If we made any room at all for beauty last year, we should give ourselves credit for contributing to the net good, and perhaps resolve to do it again in 2018.


Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Against dailiness: Time and attention in poetry

Lately, I’ve been trying to make some changes.
I’m trying to be kinder. Trying to watch less news. Trying to be more giving, more contemplative, more focused. Trying to soften.
I’m also trying to change the way I write, and to be gentle with myself as I do. I recently lost my friend and mentor Michelle Boisseau, a superb poet and an incomparable teacher of poetry. I was lucky enough to have her in my life for almost three decades, having met her when I was an undergraduate at Morehead State University. The first poem I handed her then was about rainbows. She handed back instruction in how to be deeply authentic—to live observantly well below any rainbow—and I was instantly hooked. That was how I began my life as a poet.
Michelle’s last advice to me had to do with my habit of writing daily poems—a practice that has been important to me, almost like meditation, for years. But a few months ago, she asked me why I was so keen on poem-a-day projects. Why didn’t I invest more time—go further in?
It had been years since my mentor had offered direction about my poems, and I wasn’t sure what to do with this guidance. Daily writing was how I worked. I specialized in small poems, sonnet-sized or below, and I labored over the page, putting hours into crafting each piece. There was nothing light about my labor, nothing throwaway about my poems, and I stand by the work. Still, I couldn’t deny it—there was something to what Michelle was telling me.
I’m realizing more and more that I have trained myself to pay big attention to small things—status updates and tweets. Magazine articles. Songs and sitcoms. Nothing in my daily life prepares me for sustained thought, and very seldom do I return today to an idea that was percolating yesterday. Each day brings some new cynosure.
Of course, we can think of many important poems that were substantively completed in a day. The Romantics offer plenty of examples. Think of William Wordsworth, practically running as he approached his door after a ramble, “Tintern Abbey” ready to spill from his head. Or think of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, frantic to record “Kubla Khan” in the moments between waking from an opium-enhanced dream and the unfortunate knock on the door by that damnable Porlockian.
But my little poems about my life aren’t the same as these. Maybe they have more in common with Emily Dickinson’s work—her poems born complete on the back flaps of envelopes. I know I flatter myself with any of these comparisons, but I’m thinking about process as much as product, and of that part of writing that occurs far from the page, as we noodle and observe.
I should note that I see my friend’s advice as very targeted—a suggestion meant specifically for me, a midlife poet with a book under her belt and another on the way. This probably isn’t something she would have said to a beginner, for whom experimentation and variety can be richly instructive and rewarding. I think she was offering particular advice from a mature poet to a maturing one, and it had to do with allowing myself to follow my thoughts well into their depths, rather than staying at or near the surface.
When I first knew Michelle, she advised our university literary journal, called Inscape. It is not lost on me that the concept of inscape, that term coined by Gerard Manley Hopkins, is in back of her suggestion. I don’t think Michelle was telling me to labor more over prosody (although that’s not a bad idea, either). I think she was seeing the potential in me to explore the inscape of me and everything around me, and she was giving me permission, in a life built of student compositions and editing projects and PTA meetings, to probe the thingness of things, the instress.
It feels incomparably fine to be recognized as someone whose insights might matter. When I sit at my desk, though, this new challenge is a bit of a burden. I’d like to tell you the astonishing thing my young son said in his sleep, or maybe describe what the sun did to the remnants of the ice storm in the trees. These are not new thoughts, but they’re beautiful ones, and I’d like to nudge them around a bit, see where they take me. But I have something big to say, and I can’t be sure that ice-coated branches will get me there.

Of course they can. What I mean is that I’m not sure how to get to a big there from my very modest here. There’s no map, and the way is not direct. And that’s the real poetic challenge, and one I hope I’m up to—my new job is to lay down that path.


Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Writing will always take you back

Antony Gormley, Feeling Material II (2003)

I have a thing I say to myself, and to writers I know who have hit a dry spell that they can’t seem to emerge from, and it is this: Poetry will always take you back.
When one has been a long time away from writing, the blank page is daunting. There’s just too much white. Every mark we put down seems to stain it.
I remember a Christmas day a few decades back. I’d walked behind my house through a stubbled, harvested farm field toward the railroad track that formed its border a few hundred yards away. It wasn’t particularly cold; I wore shorts and a light jacket.
And then the snow came. It came sudden and hard, and I was blinded by it. My only course of action was put my head down, turn around, and follow the direction of the empty furrows back to my far-off home.
I trusted those grooves to get me back, just as I trust my lines of writing to get me somewhere. If we lower ourselves to the page, it meets us back, and it becomes a field where anything can happen.
A lot of people have advice on how to get the words going again. (I’m one of them, actually—I’ve written many posts containing writing prompts.) But starting to write again is a simple matter, if not an easy one. We just have to write.
I like to draft longhand, so for me, it’s literally a matter of moving my hand and arm over the page. Ink comes out; the page is defaced, so just like that, a source of consternation is behind me. At first my motions are mechanical and forced, my letters crabby and precise. I have a habit of crossing out those first sputters of language, and not just drawing a line through them, but obliterating them—scribbling over the offensively bad writing until not even the merest tittle shows. This is part of it, though—scribbling just another way of moving the pen.
That’s the trick, see—it’s not to be brilliant, but it’s to allow something to come through. After weeks or months away from writing, whatever presence is on the other side of that pen, looking up through the still pond of the page, has stepped away. The sound of our scratching beckons it back, and eventually, if our heart is pure, it offers us a crumb—a good word, a phrase, an image. 
And then we’re off.
Put in more practical terms, we have to write in order to write. Writing isn’t magic; it’s just slapping down some words. Most good writing happens in its revision anyway, but we can’t revise nothing. Moving the pen, or moving our fingers on the keyboard, gives us something. And we go from there.
For me, it really is as simple as this. The way to get back to writing is merely to write. After a few dusty gerunds or infinitives shake out, the pump begins to prime, and whoosh—out comes a lovely noun, and it’s one you hadn’t thought of in a while, one with the perfect sound. Tuba. Crypt. Syzygy. You hook your wagon to that word and it carries you … somewhere. And wherever it is, it’s always somewhere new.
I think we imbue writing with the wrong kind of voodoo. It isn’t fickle; it doesn’t leave us. It really does reside in us, always, and it can emerge if we make a path for it. The real magic is that writing begets more writing. The main thing that keeps it from happening is that we can’t easily find the time and the solitude to let it flow. 
Once we do find ourselves in the position to receive, we sometimes make one of two mistakes: Either we take an agenda to the page, and our plans don’t compel us, or we sit down and file through our mental Rolodex of potential subjects, and nothing there demands to be written about.
I like to rely on chance when I’m writing. A phrase here, a word there—these can lead to some surprising conjunctions, and the interest generated by an unexpected melding of ideas takes me past my panic and into … a poem. Or a proto-poem? 
At any rate, it’s a start.


Monday, May 22, 2017

On planning to be happy

I’ve been thinking a lot about reaching my writing goals, and my last three posts discussed the basics of establishing a mission, setting goals, and managing time.

But there is so much more to life than writing, and I need to remind myself of this on occasion. I’m sitting by one beautiful example of this so-much-more as I write this; while I do my work, he does his—he’s watching an episode of Peppa Pig and eating his cereal.

My shorthand way of thinking about the so-much-more is to call it happiness. That’s a very wiggly word for it, though. Is happiness the same as joy, or am I low-balling when I revel in the simple pleasure of having my best little friend by my side? Is this contented feeling happiness? 

And as I write this, and always, at every moment, there is gut-wrenching torture and pain and sorrow in the world. Someone I love is consumed by worry that he can’t pay an important bill. Another person I know is doubled over in pain at the death of her sister. And people I’ll never meet are starving and suffering and hurting in ways I can’t even imagine. This is always true, and there’s something problematic about happiness or joy under the circumstances.

I teach composition at the university level, and in recent classes I’ve been pursuing a happiness theme as a research focus. My students and I try to pin down a definition of happiness. We talk about the relationship of happiness to work, to love, to place, to the spirit, to art—any connection we can make to untangle the idea (or to further complicate it). We ponder what our nation’s founders meant when they said we had the right to pursue it; we probe why polls find significant unhappiness in the U.S., despite our wealth and apparent opportunity.

I’m embarking on a new class, and I just posted some journaling themes for my students. These were pretty easy to generate, because they’re the very same questions I’ve been ruminating over. Here are some:

1. To what extent is happiness a choice?
2. What did our nation’s founders mean when they said we had the “right to pursue happiness”?
3. Is joy just extreme happiness, or is it distinct from it?
4. In what ways is sorrow relevant to/necessary for happiness?
5. How can we best address sadness in another?
6. Why do some polls find U.S. citizens unhappy?
7. What is the main ingredient of your own happiness?
8. How do you deal with sadness?
9. Why do we sometimes laugh in inappropriate settings, like funerals?
10. How can you increase your happiness?
11. Should you try to be happier?
12. Do you ever sort of revel in a mood of melancholy, and if so, why?
13. Does activism require anger?
14. What’s up with people telling us to smile?
15. What is the role of religion in happiness?
16. What is the role of work in happiness?
17. What is the role of family in happiness?
18. What is the role of romantic love in happiness?
19. What is the role of home in happiness?
20. What is the role of mindfulness or meditation in happiness?
21. What is the role of pets in happiness?
22. What is the opposite of happiness?
23. Why do some people feel happier in a tidy or clean setting?
24. What good can you say about sadness?
25. What is one thing you can do right now to improve your level of happiness?
26. Read any article about happiness, scholarly or otherwise, and respond to it.

One thing I tell my students, and something I believe very strongly, is that sustained happiness is not an accident. We may feel a burst of pleasure when we win some money on a scratch-off lottery ticket or we run into an old friend, but it seems to me that a happy life is the result of planning. We have to set ourselves up for it. Luck helps, too—if we have good health and a job we enjoy, we’re mostly just fortunate, although health and employment, too, are things we can strive for.

So as I’m planning for a summer of successful writing, I’m also thinking about soaking up all the happiness I possibly can—and about supplementing the happiness of the people I care about (and I like to think that’s everyone, although I may fall short in a few particular instances).

What will happiness require? I have an idea that I’ll need to write things I care about, but also that I must have time in nature, time with my family, time for navel-gazing and relaxation. My gut says that multitasking is working in the wrong direction, and that to be fully happy, I have to inhabit my life and be fully present in each moment.

I anticipate some disappointments, and maybe some very harsh ones. But right now, I’m reaching for joy, and I’m doing all I can to be ready for it.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Making the most of a writer's time

Badger, Sir Thomas Browne, 1658

To reach our goals, it’s important to have a mission and a plan. Even more than these elements, though, we need to have time—and time, in fact, is the only absolute necessity.

I’m thinking of writing, although “mission” feels like more of a corporate term than an artistic one. As long as we devote some time to writing, we can muck around without a mission or purpose, and we can feel our way without a plan. But there’s no substitute for time. Writers have to write down some words, and this happens in a unit of time—a few seconds spent scrawling on the back of an envelope, an entire day drafting at a desk. You can take away the envelope or the desk, but you can’t subtract time from the equation and still say that one has written.

This formula for achievement of goals—mission plus plan over time—works for every goal, even beyond writing. We could have a mission to get fit and a great exercise plan to follow, but if we don’t spend time exercising—if we don’t act on the plan in real life—nothing changes for us. There is power in having a vision, but most of that power has to do with the way it changes our actions. I have a lot of desires, but I can’t think my house clean; I need to dip into my limited pool of time to pick up toys or scrub the shower.

My last two posts here have talked about mission and planning as ways to make the most of summer writing time that academics frequently have high hopes for. Summer, I’ve found, can get away from us if we do what we feel drawn to—sleep in, laze about, soak up the sun. With an idea of what it is we’re about, and a plan for what we’d like to accomplish, we might be tempted to go with what feels good. Sometimes that’s exactly what we should do—and it’s undoubtedly a good idea for at least some part of our free time.

But a big part of the plan is how to execute it with the resources we have, and our most important (and most limited) resource is time.

The outset of summer is a perfect time to craft a schedule for meeting our goals (and perhaps for starting a habit of intentional use of time, even though the schedule might change). Here are some steps to consider for making the most of time:

* Take a realistic look at the twenty-four hours in a day. Figure on eight hours for sleep, even though eight full hours of sleep is a pipe dream for me; still, that’s a healthy target, and I wouldn’t advise low-balling sleep, or making a plan that steals from our need to be good to ourselves.

* Start to chart out a calendar, with the understanding that your Mondays are different than your Thursdays—each day brings its own commitments and challenges.

* Make a place on the schedule for those elements that can’t be omitted—like childcare or work. It helps to know the difference. We actually can let the dishes stand in the sink for a day. We can forego a shower or a favorite show. Children are going to need to eat, but we can forego an hour-and-a-half of cooking in favor of a frozen pizza in the oven, at least on occasion.

* Look at what’s left—and again, we can do this even if we have to steal time that we might prefer to use for another purpose. I love to woolgather in the morning before the family is awake, but that’s my best chance at a few hours of uninterrupted writing time, and if I’m focused on meeting my goals, I need to be thoughtful of what I do with pockets of time.

* Give yourself permission to regard writing time as one of those immutable elements, and place it on the schedule. For me, I might make the immutable writing time that pocket I regularly have from 6 to 8 a.m.—or I might know that I’ll be waiting out my kid’s karate class or sitting in a car line for a pocket of time. I suggesting giving a regularly available pocket of time to writing, and trying to find the best pocket available for the purpose. Sometimes we’re dealing with ten-minute increments, but sometimes we have the benefit of an entire unscheduled hour or more.

* Be both ambitious and practical about the amount of time you can dedicate to writing. If you can give eight hours to it, do! But that sounds like an unusual day to me, and the kind of overly ambitious planning that dooms a goal to failure.

* Because theoretical time has a tendency to disappear, try to identify a secondary time you might use for writing if your primary spot is taken. Mark it down, and if you find it’s necessary look for places to economize on time (the frozen pizza trick) and expand the secondary pocket.

Busy people really can’t count on writing time popping up accidentally, although waiting for (and recognizing) this kind of opportunity is sometimes my method. If we are to look back on the summer with the satisfaction of knowing that we made progress on our goals, we need to have the resolve at the outset to identify who we are and what we’d like to accomplish, and then to chart a course that takes the best advantage of available time.


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