This week, one of the two most productive writers I know wondered aloud, “Is this it? Is the brain case empty now?” as she rapped her skull smartly. Last week, I asked the other one, who is going through a bad time, whether she was writing about it. “Nope,” she pronounced with authority from within her crenellated citadel of books and papers. Both are scholar-teacher-poets with lots of service commitments to the university, the larger profession, and various other communities, and I’ve recently seen both of them drop everything to tend to a family member in crisis.
September and October are always the absolute worst months for me as a writer (northern hemisphere bias alert: I definitely mean early fall and the beginning of school). Maybe it’s different when you don’t have teachers or students in the house; I wouldn’t know. At the office, classes, committee work, and special events force an intense schedule, and there’s all that leftover summer work to finish—the deadlines you didn’t quite meet. At home, the kids are stressed out by transition. They need both firing up and talking down so they can reestablish homework/practice routines and manage to sleep at night. For us, there are two September birthdays, conferences, and book promotion in the mix.
It’s not just time, though, especially where poetry is concerned. There’s a quality of attention I find hard to manage. To write, you have to notice what’s strange, urgent, lovely, or interesting and I’m just moving too fast. All weekend, even: feed the kids, grade the papers, get some minimal exercise, pay the bills, have postponed conversations about practical things like whether we have to take that tree down and what’s that growth on your thumb and what happens this Thanksgiving. Worse, because I’m moving rapidly from task to task, I fill free moments with similarly quick and not-too-difficult activities: check Facebook and email, read The New Yorker. I don’t have a lot of time, but there’s an hour every once in a while, and I don’t spend it on what I care about the most.
I’m drafting this entry early Sunday morning. My task today, having graded the papers and planned Monday’s class, is to prepare comments for a conference roundtable on innovative scholarship. As in, I’m supposed to be someone who produces it and can explain how. This does strike me as funny. My brain case isn’t empty—there are several big questions percolating in there—but at the moment I have too many options and wouldn’t know what to tackle if some power stopped time for a week and sent me to Yaddo or the Beinecke. Or how to tackle it. Would I be aiming my prose at venues with scholarly or literary prestige? Small coterie journals with great editors and no resources? My neglected blog? Or would I just play around? Self-indulgent, apparently pointless experiment has produced some of my better poems, though I revise with several editors’ heads bobbing facelessly over my shoulder like Sylvia Plath’s disquieting muses. I know that if I want to be a better and more productive writer, I have to be ready to waste time, stare at the wall, obsess fruitlessly, ignore responsibilities, and do it again and again.
Someone told me last night at a dinner that he’s going to read poetry when he retires and he has time to savor it. I’m going to look for writing windows sooner than that. Like, maybe, November.
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