Thursday, March 3, 2016

Positivity key to a happy writing life

            Over the course of my life, I’ve met a lot of writers. In the old days, it was a thing I’d do intentionally—travel to readings just for the chance to ask a poet or fiction writer or essayist a single question, one that I spent the whole trip coming up with. I collected the answers and compared writers’ lifestyles and practices, always with the hope that I could pick up the key to being a writer myself.
            The problem may be obvious. All of these writers had different advice—different ways of moving through the world. Not only was there no single way to be a writer; many writers seemed wholly idiosyncratic in their practices.
It was common to devote a certain number of hours a day to writing—so common that I thought that was the key. A lot of writers reported spending X number of hours per morning or night at their desk, every single day. But I met just as many who wrote only in the non-teaching months, or who had to be alone and away from distraction, maybe in a hotel.
And there are those lucky few—I’m one of them—who can write in a café or in the house with the TV on and the kids hitting each other. It’s not where the best writing happens, for me at least, but I can get a poem draft down on paper and polish it later, preferably in solitude.
So my findings, after decades of study, show that writers operate around the clock, in all kinds of conditions, some daily and some in spurts. That must mean that the key to being a writer is the answer to a question other than “when.” I’m tempted to think that the proper question is “how” or “under what conditions.” And in my writing life, I have always been most successful when I kept writing at the center and felt empowerment and autonomy in life.
A recent semester found me teaching way too many classes as an adjunct—nine, in fact, or about three times a normal professor’s load. My time was claimed by a lot of students who needed me, and I felt pulled in too many directions. As a result, my writing didn’t go particularly well.
Before that, I worked full-time at a failing university with an incredibly oppressive atmosphere. My office/classroom had dirty walls and floors, rodents, mold, drafts—and I had only one colleague on my floor, and she wasn’t that fond of me. I had some time to write, but life was just so onerous in those years. I didn’t feel any support, and while I had time available, it always seemed like I should spend it doing something, anything, else.
Since 1998, I’ve been teaching writing at the university level, and I really enjoy it. We brainstorm for topics and talk about developing ideas logically and interestingly. I look at lots of drafts, and I even write along with my students.
Sometimes the teaching life can be very good for writing. When there’s a good vibe (one that has to be cultivated with great care), I benefit from the energy as much as my students do. For those classes that don’t go well for whatever reason—I’m off, or a student or two project resentment or lack of interest that takes hold in the classroom—my writing life suffers right along with my teaching life.
I was a reporter for a long time, and the big surprise was that my creative writing thrived. Instead of a sense that I “gave at the office,” I was able to do my best journalistic work at the office, and then build on that good energy with creative work at home. The two didn’t interfere with each other. Journalism seemed crucially important to me, and my work was well received in the community. My creative writing, a wholly different type of writing, benefited from the energy and positivity of my day job—even though that job sometimes kept me hopping for sixteen-hour days.
And that’s the thing: a positive attitude is the key to my own creative success. When I was in that dank attic office, there was nothing keeping me from cultivating a better outlook—and ultimately, I did. I moved to a different office, away from some of the filth and toward a pleasant old space and friendly colleagues, including the nicest secretary in the world. I decided that I was done with negativity, and my writing began to take off again.
Interestingly, I learned while occupying that new office that I had lost my job due to budget cuts (or possibly due to the gray cloud that always surrounded me). But I decided to focus on my writing, and to make being a poet my life’s purpose.
On New Year’s Day, 2015, I made a resolution of sorts by declaring it “the year of the book.” Until that point, I had published only individual stories, poems, and essays, and a couple of chapbooks. I felt ready to have a book of my own, and I informed the universe that it would have to find a way to make it so.
Within a few short months, I had a book contract in hand, and this year, fourteen months after that declaration, I got another. It seems significant, that once I believed in a new picture of myself—me with a book—the picture came to be.
My new takeaway is that I have to write to be successful, but when and where I write is not the controlling factor. The energy surrounding the writing activity and my working life (writing or otherwise) is all important.
And the really good part of this understanding is that I’m in charge of my energy. When the vibe is bad, I can move away from it, or I can change it. When disappointments come, I can see opportunities within them.

Ultimately, feeling empowered is what makes someone a successful writer.

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