Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Making the most of the times we can't write

OK, yeah, sure. April’s a cruel month. As an academic, though, I’m not especially enamored of early May, either.

May is when I’m schlepping not one, but two tote bags from classroom to classroom. My fingers are inky and my schedule is full. Ideas for stories, poems, and essays come—they always come—but there is never time to write them, or even, I find, to think about them. Inevitably, some good but overwhelmed student is hanging by a thread, and it falls upon me to stitch him or her back into the fabric of college life. A poem can feel like a luxury in times like these.

The problem is that I am in the habit of writing daily, usually upon waking. I almost never spend less than an hour writing in the morning, except when grading commands my time and students command my attention. The end of the spring semester is the most difficult time of the year.

To be clear, I have not always practiced daily writing. There was a period of several years when I couldn’t bring myself to write at all. My confidence had been shaken by unkind words from trusted people. And those non-writing years were deeply painful to me, and I promised myself not to repeat them.

As a result, not writing for even a few consecutive days fills me with dread. Today is May 4. My thoughts will be fully mine again around May 16. Until then, I have no time and no mental space for the act of writing, but I retain the desire. There are a few strategies I employ at times like this, just to keep the pump primed.

First, I acquire a little notebook, and not just any notebook—a beautiful one. I have used handmade booklets or a colorful Moleskine, but it’s always something that feels good in the palm and seems special. I understand that this may sound hokey, but a special notebook can be a small offering to the words I don’t have time for.

What goes in the notebook? Starts. I fill the bank with ideas I can use later to get things going. Here are some of the things I collect:

  • Overheard words. If I’m grading at a coffee shop or taking a break with my kid at the playground, I always catch snippets that interest me—phrases flying loose that want to be tethered to a poem.
  • Character sketches. Even my students can provide inspiration for a character in a story. There is a great deal of daylight between my actual student and Johnny Fictionguy, but aspects of a person’s unusual job or avocation can providing food for fiction thought. Writing it down preserves it for when time does appear.
  • Images. I can be walking down the university hallway and challenge myself to come up with a simile for how I’m feeling at that very moment, or a perfect description for the feeling of my mother’s cheek when I kiss it. When I hit the elevator, I take a moment and jot it down.
  • Puzzles. Sometimes writing, particularly poems and essays, begins with a conundrum. It doesn’t have to be A Study in Scarlet. The mystery can be much more fundamental. Right now the biggest mystery in my life is to wonder why a trusted friend let me down in a profoundly devastating way. I can noodle around with that kind of brain-teaser for as long as doing so feels healthy, and the question will never grow less vexing. This is the stuff of poetry, though—and pinning down a few words in the midst of real suffering can preserve the memory of that feeling until I can address it on the page.
  • Anaphorae or listsicles. I may not have time to write a complete piece in a sitting, but I can generate sections—lines or paragraphs—that I can assemble and order later. I don’t even need to overthink it. It’s enough to write the words “I want” and then track my desires so that I can pretty them up later. I want a tin roof sundae. I want Sunday. I want my son today. I want the sun to stay. It’s just a more structured way of noodling, and it may come to nothing at all. It keeps the hand and the brain moving, though, and that’s worth a lot in these forced dry spells.

There are a few other good strategies, too. If I can’t write a draft of an essay, I can still do a little freewriting (this, for me, in a larger notebook or legal pad), if only for a minute or two. In general, freewriting has the most value when we can jump on it early and make something of it, but even when we can’t, it still keeps, to some extent; it can be a shortcut from a cold start.

I also enjoy found poetry—those snippets of menus and signs and articles and mailings that capture our attention for their strangeness or double meaning. These are best captured with the camera on my phone, although there’s no reason they can’t be jotted in that notebook, too, to keep it all together.

In a little over a week, don’t bother calling because I’m not going to answer. Instead, I’m going to cozy up somewhere and write until I can’t feel my fingers. These little starts will make the job easier, and I’ll have a sense that my time away from writing has not been wasted. In reality, it hasn’t even been away.


  1. All good advice, and not only because I follow it. It has helped keep me whole and happy.
    Lisa Harris

    1. How did I miss this nice comment? Thanks, Lisa -- so happy for the affirmation! Good luck to you!