Keep up with all legally prescribed psychotropic medications.
Buy a cute notebook. Buy ten cute notebooks. Get a filthy (yet legal) stationery habit. Look at your beautiful pens and pencils and the trendy Japanese notebooks. They are begging to be used. Use them.
Read. Use your disdain for the shoddily written books to write your own. Use your inspiration to scrawl something new. No one gets better at writing without writing.
Start pondering your very complicated feelings about the word “Yankee” (or word of your choice).
Bribery. Self-loathing. Reward systems. Another cup of coffee.
Louise Erdrich writes in Blue Jay Dance about how she tied herself to the chair with a bathrobe belt. She could loosen it in case of emergency, but it kept her from bounding up before her executive function could stop her.
Get the fuck off the Internet. Oops, it’s now “internet.”
How do you get to the page?
Get up, let dogs out, check facebook, scowl into my coffee.
Hour 1. Decide to write. Open a document. Check Apartment Therapy for stupid cramped apartments I’d never want to live in. Go back to document. Toast a bagel.
Hour 2. Spend this hour looking for the best goddamned quote you’ve ever read on science and the South. Plan an entire blog post around it. Be unable to find quote even though you took notes and read half the book you thought it came from.
Hour 2 + 5 min. Curse your life.
Hour 3. Reread a chapter. Despair. Reread your notes. Despair. Make a few tiny edits to chapter 1. Vow to be a better person. But first, eat your leftover Thai food for Second Breakfasts.
Hour 4. Print out the chapter and lie on the couch. Make some changes you don’t hate. Go back to the computer and input said changes. Spend too long on facebook.
Hour 4.5. Despair. Write an email to a friend. Text a dumb pun to another friend (it’s her fault, she started it). Read 10 pages about whaling.
Hour 5. Go back to your fucking document and write something, you twit! You can’t blow off a day of editing just to read 10 pages about whaling. Stare at the screen. Move some things around. Remember a genius idea you had a few days ago. Write 250 words. Reread. Feel proud. This is why we write.
Try not to think about how it took you five hours to find something meaningful in your manuscript.
Go somewhere and write. How hard can it be? Wake up every morning knowing that there is no distraction from the page with the exception of Otto the Cat and your co-residents. There are a host of social rules surrounding co-residents, but today I’m focusing on writing. Because I should be focusing on writing—Oh look, there’s a carpenter bee hitting my window for the 10th time this hour!
You have been given a gift of time. And with this gift, perhaps because you’re Jewish (or I’m Jewish anyway) or perhaps because you’re a writer, comes with a full complement of guilt. You really should be writing. Or patting Otto the Cat. There are no other options.
Earlier this week I compared being at a writing residency to being an athlete. You have to pamper your delicate little psyche so it can keep writing. If your brain needs fresh air, take a walk. If on the third day you feel grief and pain and stress, spend the afternoon in bed reading a delightfully schlocky fantasy novel set in a magical alternative Russia. You will be able to write on the fourth day.
Don’t drink too much. Don’t talk to people who put you off your writing groove, should you have one (and you really should). Don’t despair if on day seven you write 463 of the worst words you have ever written in your entire adult life. They are inaccurate and ugly, but they are 463 more words on a difficult topic than you had yesterday. And on day eight you can attempt to make them slightly less hideous. You can do it. Stretch, walk, hydrate.
You really should be writing.
Back in my poet days, it was easy. I could look up facts about whales, anatomy, the violin, crown vetch, whatever obscure item I needed to make my image work. I didn’t have to be an authority on the topic.
If I were a historian, I would know how to breeze in and out of archives to get the information I needed. If I were a journalist, I would know how to call people and get them to talk (in a good way, not in a fake Russian accent mobster kind of way).
If I were an academic, I would have an institution behind me. Instead I have my wavering sense of self. “Hi. I’m a writer? Um. Could I visit your archives? Here’s ten things I’ve published and a sonnet just to prove to you that I’m not an international map thief. And that I’m smart and creative, and never mind.” If I wanted to talk to people for a living I would still be working in bookstores.
If the archives I wanted to visit weren’t in such an expensive place it would all be easier. If my local historical associations awarded gifts to creative writers, it would all be easier. If I weren’t such a fucking introvert, it would all be easier.
But on the other hand, I am not writing the definitive biography of my historical person. I am writing the story of some lives woven together. And my own introverted, curious, poetry-lovin’ self is the narrator. Surely I can pull that off.
How do you do research for what you write? Or create?
I am not feeling terribly happy, but from today on, the days will get longer, and since it’s actually spring, I will try to not get so mad about the unseasonably warm weather that makes plants bloom at the wrong time. It’s not just, “Oh, my poor crocii”; it’s “holy fuck, crops are not getting fertilized at the right time or are getting damaged in the cold, we’re all going to die.” As you can see, I am a tiny ray of sunshine.
I wrote a plot treatment for the fucker. Yes I should have done that years ago, but I couldn’t have. I needed to write it all out to see what I really knew and what I really had. My brain hurts, but I am cautiously pleased with my process.
This spring I hope to finish the Small Beer Book. I want to make some real process with The Fucker. Right now I am in research phase, which is a pretty good place to be. There is a whole new chapter I have to write up, and I know nothing. Fortunately the librarian at Second Job and I are members of the mutual admiration society. She ordered me a book about a store my grandfather worked at in California (take that, Cougar).
What are you doing this spring?
Why is February awesome? Let me tell you. There have been three snowstorms in about five days. Normally I enjoy a snowpocalypse as much as the next person, or at least more than the next person, but our snow plow dude did a no show. No big deal, thought the former Southerner. I’m good with a shovel! By a miracle of air flow our side driveway stays pretty clear; it’s just the end of the driveway. How hard can that be?
Well, let’s just say I can move a good deal of plain old snow. Crusty, refrozen iceberglets left from previous road plowings? Not so much. Fortunately I am on the way to work for about five different colleagues, and I phoned around until I found one who could give me a ride.
I didn’t have to worry about going out (after I got home from work) because of the snow and the weekend, and the Spouse was at AWP. So—how fantastic!—two whole days to do nothing but work on the beer book. And then today, another snow day! More work on the beer book!
Now there are gale-force winds (I think), and blowing snow, and although I am profoundly grateful I don’t have to be anywhere, I am stuck. With my beer book. As my house creaks and rattles around me. It’s a morass of first world New England* problems up here (*Let’s just say I have more sympathy with Ethan Frome than I used to). And if I don’t finish this damn manuscript soon, I’m going to lose my damn mind.
How are you guys dealing with winter or writing? (Note: Today, please don’t tell me about your pleasant spring weather, OK? Thank you. My psyche is delicate.)
I’ve had dry spells various times since I decided to write on a regular basis. Although I am not in a dry spell right now, writing is more of a struggle than it used to be. Not having my regular project is hard, and quite frankly the writing part of my brain is still tired. What to do?
Don’t panic. The state of not writing is not permanent. Even Junot Diaz, with his ten-year writing block, came back from it and wrote The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. And we’re glad he did. You will write again.
Read. My friend in grad school calls this filling the bucket. Your word bucket is empty and you need more. Your idea bucket is empty. You need more. Read in the genre in which you are trying to write. But be easy on yourself and read some schlock fiction too.
Keep trying. Don’t put that notebook away in a dark corner and then never enter the room again. Go to that notebook every day or so and try some freewriting or just stare at it for a little bit. Stop staring at it before you want to burn it and yourself.
Figure out the underlying cause. Do you hate your book? Did the plot die on the vine? Are you depressed? Do you need to move to Vermont and start a goat farm? Did you move to Vermont to start a goat farm and then regret everything? You get the idea.
How do you survive the drought?