Thursday, July 31, 2008

THOSE Kind of Days...

So I've been a bit tired. I think it has to do with having written 23 pages of academic essay in four days (with only one day of break in-between) and then handed it in on Tuesday afternoon, officially completing my independent study for the summer.

So on Tuesday night, I hit the usual bottom. I was tired, and crabby. Feeling like it was impossible to jump right into other kinds of writing. And like all of this was too much for my writing practices to deal with.

And that I'd been working so hard to be the perfect writer, with the perfect practices and techniques that surely should allow me to jump right from producing what I only hoped turned out to be semi-insightful academic prose (that will later form the base for part of my dissertation) into revising my novel manuscript and working on the new one with no transition time.

Well, I eventually made it to sleep but despite exhaustion, didn't sleep well. When I woke up, things didn't feel much better, but after some cuddling with the cats, I picked up Leif Enger's new fiction book, which I'd had out of the library but hadn't gotten a chance to read yet. After a few pages, I realized three things:

  1. My friend Cindy was right--it was amazing, in that the prose was beautiful and the story was engaging, all at the same time. That, in fact, I shouldn't get too far into it because I had to go to work.
  2. I was not alone. The narrator was a writer dealing with feelings of inadequacy and having difficulty finding the inspiration to write some decent stuff. 'Nuff said.
  3. That what I should really be doing with all these depressing feelings was to start thinking out my new chapter in my new novel--after all, the characters in that novel are dealing with various angst-filled situations right now, so I should be striking while the iron was hot, as it were, and tapping into the present emotional types to remember other emotions, then smelting down, transmuting, and pouring the material into my characters in a new form.

Ah, the power of the self-evident to occasionally jolt one into action. See, I told myself, the practices really do work, stupid. One should not doubt like that.

But I'm sure it will happen again--'tis the nature of the beast. At such times I feel grateful, though, that I'm a creative writer--maybe not everyone gets to experience my wild mood swings, but most of them don't get to alchemically translate them into imaginary experiences for imaginary people, either, which is a pretty amazing thing to get to be able to do.

There's a beauty in knowing that no horrible, awful, no good, rotten experience I have is for naught--with time, a bit of distance, and a proper application of imagination in order to see how it might apply to someone in a different situation with a different experience and personality, it can become material.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

But Wait, that's Writing, Too...

I've noticed something in myself lately. When I'm writing an academic essay, I'm tempted not to see that as "writing" in the same way working on my novel is writing. Journaling, I see as writing, if informal writing, but writing an email I don't think of as writing.

When I think about this from a definitional standpoint, this seems very odd to me. The oddest distinction is that between writing an academic essay (not writing) and writing a creative non-fiction essay (definitely writing), particularly since I use somewhat similar processes to produce both pieces of work, and often each can inform the other.

Looking at this distinction more closely led me to some insights as to why this might be so, but has also made me more determined to break down this bizarre understanding of what's "writing" and what's not by applying the lessons I've learned in the academic world's view of writing to my creative writing, and vice versa.

Here are some of the things I can gain by cross-pollinating the understandings from the creative and academic writing worlds:

My creative side:

  • Recognizes that writing, even non-fiction writing, is a creative process
  • Understands there is an intuitive portion to writing, and that emotions often get involved
  • Recognizes that the way my brain--and the creative process--works is a bit mysterious at times

My academic side:

  • Knows how to narrow down a topic and find material to work from
  • Moves from material to finished product
  • Sees how my work as a contribution to a discussion
  • Seeing writing as a legitimate thing to spend time pursuing (since it's part of what's expected of me)

Now if I could just apply the lessons from each side to what I do in the other side, and learn to see that as a legitimate thing to do, my view of writing would be a much more holistic one. And then if I could also incorporate what I've learned from informal types of writing, such as blogging, emailing, IMing, etc. into that view, I'd really be getting somewhere.

Of course, I'd still want and need to focus on different genres at particular times (and I'm still likely to get a little grumpy if I have to spend too much time on my less-favorite genres), but it would be nice to feel that I was accomplishing something writerly and learning lessons about writing no matter what I was working on...

Anyone have similar noticings about weird beliefs they've had privileging kinds of writing over others? I see the recent article about digital literacy in the NY Times (thanks to Rob Bruno for pointing it out) as addressing a similar concern by asking questions about what "real reading" is...

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Scheduling my Headspace

Writing practices are fabulous things, and they definitely do help me to become creative and productive of writing. Potential problems with them, though, are the following:
  1. They can take over, like crabgrass. I've noticed this with journaling, particularly, or blogging. Or even Facebook status writing. If I'm not careful, I can spend all my time working on the practices that are supposed to be there to help me write other things.
  2. They tend to birth their own projects. These projects are happy things--evidences of creativity and writing productivity--but if you have other projects that are more urgent, it can lead to over-writing-commitment.
  3. They can become ends in themselves. This is related to #1, but is a bit different. It refers to how one performs these practices. Practices can help lead into writing, or they can become escapes from writing.

All of these potential problems remind me how important it is that I allocate my headspace carefully. The practices, if they are to help me instead of diverting me, must be done with intentionality and an eye towards the project I need to work on most.

Journaling, for instance, is of utmost importance, but I've learned I need to keep an eye on the clock when it's there to clear my head to provide space for working on another project. And if I want great ideas in the shower regarding a certain project, it helps to look over my notes on that project before I jump in, or I'll spend the time thinking about other things.

There are, of course, other wonderful ideas that are bound to be inspired by the practices--my way of dealing with those is having a places to jot down ideas to be developed later. That way I've captured them, but don't feed the need to finish them then. Sometimes it's okay to be diverted for a time, I think, and too much strictness with myself can stifle my ability to get anything done, but if I want to proceed on certain projects, I have to provide myself with headspace for doing them.

That's why, on my wall next to my list of writing practices, I have a list of projects I want to allocate headspace to. Speaking of which, it's time now to re-allocate my headspace from blogging to that paper I'm supposed to be finishing up so I can move on to one of those other projects.

Anyone else have any tips on allocating headspace, or other issues relating to keeping one's thoughts on task? Please, add a comment to tell me about them.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Writing Practices

This summer, now that I've spent my year adjusting to being in a new place in a slightly different academic discipline, I've begun to work towards reclaiming some of the practices that have helped me stay sane and productive of various kinds of writing over the years. Here's how I did it:
  1. Realized I was becoming unbearably grumpy (always the first step towards recovery).
  2. Went to my creative neuroses books for help. Notably, I went to Anne Lamott's marvellously funny Bird by Bird and Vinita Hampton Wright's deeply insightful The Soul Tells a Story. A mini-writer's retreat at home with these books (all I could afford at the time) reminded me that all writers have neuroses, and that it's important to work through them and build up a series of helpful creative practices, or--surprise, surprise--the neuroses affect your productivity (as though it's not hard enough when you're doing everything you can to help).
  3. On a visit to my old town, I stayed in my old apartment and remembered the things I did to help myself write the first draft of my novel while working long work weeks at a stressful job.
  4. When I returned, I made a list of these practices, posted it on the wall above my bed, and started to work towards practicing them.

Since I know that by now you're unbearably curious to know what they are, the indispensable ones are:

  • Regular journaling, which helps me regularly clear other issues out of my head so it's clear for its writing work; and
  • Regular walks, which help me to sleep better, to notice things around me, to think through anything that hasn't been journalled, and to be an embodied human being instead of someone sitting in a chair all day every day.

Other helpful practices are:

  • Breaking down all my big writing projects into smaller manageable chunks when I feel I'm not getting anything done on them (then planning what I can do),
  • Showering and bathing (it's a cliche, but the best breakthroughs really do come then),
  • Going to sleep if the chaos reigns in my head (often I wake up with a breakthrough), and
  • Reading poetry, fiction, and other creative works.

These practices, and others, help me, an Artist's Way dropout, to stay creative and productive of a variety of styles of writing, and I'm determined to give them more priority in my life, both now and when the semester starts. They're already paying dividends in helping me to recover from what I'd begun to wonder would be irretrievable grumpiness and lack of a sense of humor, as well as helping me finish the 20 page paper I'm writing for my summer independent study. Here's hoping I can keep them up--I think it will be at least a tiny bit easier to do in the second year of my PhD work.

What about you? What practices do you have that help you write?

Sunday, July 27, 2008


I've been realizing this summer, once again, how difficult it is to keep the hedges and fences and weeds from popping up in the subdivisioned area that my writing life has become.

I like being a writer who finds the creative process worms its way into my academic essay writing modes and the things I study academically worm their way into my fiction and creative non-fiction. And so I'm creating this blog in an effort to declare that Robert Frost was being ironic when he said "good fences make good neighbors." I think this even applies to different roles in my own life.

I'm a graduate student who writes a lot of papers. I'm a fiction writer who tends to think in novels--I have several in various stages of completion. And I tend to work on other short things from time to time: creative non-fiction essays, poems, and such. And then there are the journals. I think it's important to let these things bleed into one another and inform each other, while reflecting on the differences.

This virtual space, then, will be a place where I talk about my experiences of and reflections on the writing life, in all its incarnations--to knock down the walls between the various parts of my writerly self. And I want to keep joining the conversation going on among writers and readers--I'm hoping this blog will be another way I can do that.

So why the title? I love T. S. Eliot's poem Four Quartets from which the phrase comes, and it was Eliot, after all, who said "immature poets imitate; great poets steal." So it's an homage as well as a writerly theft. But beyond that, it expresses for me one of the primary tensions of the writing life as well as of life in general.

As a writer, I know it's important for me to do two things: (1) remain still enough to notice, to think, to express, and to be patient to wait once my writings have been sent out in the world to seek their fortune; and (2) keep actively moving in the writing life--to keep my projects moving through the creative process and out into the world.

So here it appearing in a feed reader near you: Still and Still Moving: A New Blog on the Writing Life by Deborah Leiter (Hm, think I've watched too many movie trailers over the years?)