Last night I participated in an open mic before a friend’s poetry reading. Normally I hate open mics, but I knew some of the poets who would be reading, and I knew they would be good. There were the additional, yet standard, overwriters and overexplainers. The most boring of the poets read a poem written by someone else, which was great. (PSA: Never read four poems at an open mic.)
When I got up to read, the moderator asked me if I had ever read here before. I said no, and I got supportive applause. This enthusiastic reception is common for well-run, friendly open mics. I smiled, but did not look relieved or nervous as first-time readers often do. This was not the first time I had read in front of a crowd, and I knew the poem was ready because my critical-in-a-good-way Spouse had not found anything to cut.
Later one of the other readers came over to say she liked my poem. I told her I liked hers (and I did).
“Have you been writing a long time?” she asked.
I thought briefly back to my MFA, which I got in 2003, and said simply, “Yes.”
This morning I am tired and cranky. I want to be further along than I am. I want a book of poetry. I want to complain. But really the only answer to this crankitude is to sit my ass down in my chair and write. I’ve submitted my chapbook three places in as many weeks. I’m negotiating with an editor to read my memoir.
Get off the fucking Internet and write. Wait, it’s now “internet.” Whatever it is, go and write.
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.
When I ask my spouse what I should write about, he says “me.”
When I ask my spouse whether I should start chapter 2 or freewrite some ideas to finish chapter 1, he says, “I don’t know.”
I can’t decide whether I should reread a memoir I didn’t like originally, but that is very close to my topic.
No one cares how my writing day went today. It was mostly research. I love archive.org.
Weeding is boring.
Normal people are boring.
It’s no fun to say, “I’m going to the woods,” without some smartass former English major (e.g., the man I married) saying, “in order to live deliberately?”
I started out my writing life as a poet. When I began this blog in May many years ago, I wasn’t even sure I could write to the right side of the page. But I was a freelance copyeditor and wanted to write about copyediting.
This was before my poetry buddy turned to me and said, “You know what?” When this person says, “You know what?” you know your poem if not your life is about to change.
“The stories you tell about [historical figure] is more interesting than your poems.”
Shit. OK Poet Friend, I will change my life. I will spend hours on this blog whining about how hard it was to form a narrative, to make things interesting, to incorporate what my nonfiction professor called the third voice in memoir, the place one inhabits in a certain location in time, that is, in history.
This leads me to a homegrown residency. I am in a rented attic, listening to the rain. It is our last full day here, and I’m trying to freewrite about why the historical character I am obsessed about is interesting to me. Why do I write about her? How does she fit in?
The poet says, here is object A and object B. The connection between the two, dear reader, is up to you. But I am not writing poetry. I need to expand, I need to understand my own motivations. I need to talk about them in a way that makes other people give a shit.
What writing problems are you facing today?
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.
You know what I hate? Prescriptivists. Those are the people who grieve because the Internet is now lowercase. They decry the singular “they,” and probably put two spaces after their periods. (Which, spoiler alert, comes from the days of monospaced font and typewriters.) They sniff at people who begin sentences with “because.” Because that’s what their high school English teachers taught them.
Language changes, and it is my job as a copyeditor to keep up. It is the Chicago Manual of Style’s job to keep up as well. Just because I learned one rule doesn’t mean that it will never go away. We are not engineers after all. Style rules are not scientific laws. Language is dynamic and fuckity like the people who use it.
What do you hate today?
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?