Pacing

Dear Poetry Professor,
How do you get the writing done?

-Lots of People

This has been a super-hard September, beginning with emotional transitions–dropping my son off for his first year at college, establishing my daughter in her first apartment–and proceeding through too many doctor visits and grant applications on top of the usual stuff. And the usual stuff brings its own challenges. It’s hard to kick off classes well; students and advisees need and deserve a lot of attention. One of this month’s biggest difficulties, though, arose from the good luck of having two books scheduled for spring publication. Edits for my poetry collection arrived in late August, but while finalizing any ms makes me super-anxious, those edits weren’t heavy. As soon as I turned them in, though, the novel edits began arriving, and they have been much more demanding, in large part because I’m newer at prose fiction. I had more to learn about economy and precision than I realized.

In short, I don’t really have time to blog! I just felt a drive to get some thoughts down about a question people address to me frequently. And that’s usually part of the answer, isn’t it?–something like drive. Honestly, I find time for certain things, even when frantically busy. This week I taught my classes, went to meetings, and handled a zillion pieces of apparently urgent paperwork; I also texted cat pictures to my kids, watched some lame Netflix, did the New York Times spelling bee puzzle every day, finished Atwood’s The Testaments, and started King’s The Institute (both novels are marvels of effective pacing, by the way–you can’t put them down). I also edited the hell out of my forthcoming novel, Unbecoming, following advice from my editor that the middle was kind of flabby. You’ve set up the world with vivid detail in the early chapters, she said; in the middle chapters, that detail is just clogging the gears. Pick up the pace.

I haven’t, however, been able to work on Unbecoming for more than two hours at a sitting, and that’s on the freest days. The aforementioned medical problems have cost me concentration, but it’s not just that. Work too long, and the quality of your attention starts to degrade, and a book ms is not something you ought to rush through tiredly. I get upset, too, if I feel like I’m shortchanging my students or my loved ones, or if I have no downtime, as happens when you’re trying to find myriad extra two-hour blocks in a full schedule. I overworked myself into a run of illness last year–that’s another way pacing matters. I’m mostly fortunate in the health department (there’s luck and privilege as well as drive in being able to get the writing done), but I have to keep reminding myself that when I push myself to the wall, I lose more than I gain.

I can be ruthless about writing, and sometimes that’s okay, especially when it’s a matter of shirking a minor chore or squeezing out just a little more work at the end of a long day. No one really cares, for instance, that in putting so much overtime this week, I never found time to clean that gunk off the front door (what even is that?), or do extra reading about Millay before class, or keep up with social media. I try to make lists and keep reminding myself what’s actually important, but playing hooky is necessary, too. My friend is probably right that I should make time to read The Slow Professor…when I get through this run of craziness, that is.

But one last point, something I’ve observed in others as well as myself: I’m most likely to push myself when the writing obligation involves someone else’s time and effort, as is the case in delivering mss to editors, and if you’re like that, too, you can find ways to create obligations that don’t involve imminent book contracts. One colleague made a lot of writing progress this summer, for instance, by blocking off non-negotiable writing time on her calendar and making public commitments to get a certain amount done. Another has started a writing group for two hours a week: with snacks, in silent camaraderie, we sit together and work on something not related to teaching, then set goals aloud for what we’ll do in the week ahead. I’m usually very solitary about writing–I’ll always choose a shut door and a quiet room over a cafe, for instance–so I’m surprised to be enjoying it, at least in small doses. I’ll probably be happier when I can use that time on new work rather than face up to the endless failings of this endless ms, but it’s good to be reminded that all the writers you know are waging similar battles with themselves.

Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever just hang up the towel on the stress of publication, but I guess this post is one possible answer: I would keep writing even if no one wanted to listen anymore. I seem to rest from writing by writing in other modes, or at least reading. Lunacy, probably, but here I am.

Live from the surface of the moon

 Live From the Surface of the Moon
   
The landing leg (porch) jets
a web of shadows across lunar
powder while brilliantly bleached
astronauts lope across the frame
 
On Sunday July 20th 1969
I am not yet two : : do not divine
how the moon mirrors the sun
and the magnificent desolation
 
of a Rockland County building site
bald of grass : : each split-level home
a lunar module far from inflation
Vietnam race riots assassination
 
I cannot possibly remember thirty-
plus hours with Walter Cronkite and
Wally Schirra : : parents buzzing
as transmissions crinkle and flicker : :
 
much less an animation of the Eagle
advancing toward the Sea of Tranquility
or shots of the LEM’s quadruped replica
in Bethpage Long Island : : bug face
 
with a long metal snout between
wide black reflective window eyes
(choked-up Cronkite says those kids
who are kind of pooh-poohing this thing
 
I’d like to know what they thought
at this moment when our mouths
were in our throat : : How can anyone
turn off to a world like this)
 
With one-sixth of adult gravity
I bound through oversized rooms
careful not to jag my special suit
on an exposed martini glass : : every
 
high-altitude glance or word
a UFO : : ‘One small step for man’
the anchor explains but I didn’t get
the second phrase : : until static
 
lulls me to sleep : : The grown-ups
tip themselves into a queen-size
while Aldrin and Armstrong tuck
each other in on an airless satellite
 
perhaps under yellow foil blankets
but how could I know : : each maybe-
memory overwritten now like
boot prints in moondust
 
by footage on my little screen
(who would have thought the future
would be small) : : What I carry out
in my sample bag is not mankind leaping but
 
a nightmare : : Giant mechanical
spiders chasing me across the dead
land : : I lope to a quilted islet
hop up on the shadowy porch : : only
 
my groggy parents do not want me
Precarious love : : Any moonman might
splash down safely and find home
isn’t safe and never really was

Several years ago, I was running a workshop at the Bridgewater International Poetry Festival, using “moon” as an example of how different kinds of rhyme work (slant rhyme: can or boot; pararhyme: man; macaronic: la lune, and so forth). When we did a free-write, the idea for a poem percolated up. I had never written about my indirect memory of the 1969 moon landing. My mother told me there had been a party and I had watched some of it, but all I remember is a nightmare later about what the poem calls “giant mechanical spiders” traversing a cratered black-and-white landscape. To fill in the details, I watched hours of the original broadcast on YouTube, learning that some of the most famous remarks from that night were misheard or bungled, and gained a much deeper sense than I’d had before of the landing’s cultural context. I’ll always be a romantic about space travel–I love good sf about it, I subscribed to Astronomy as a girl, and for a long time I wanted to grow up to be an astronaut–but it turns out I’ll only walk in the moon in poems.

It took me days to research and draft “Live From the Surface of the Moon,” then months to revise it, although certain formal considerations crystallized early. I wanted quatrains to echo the four-legged Lunar Excursion Module. I liked the run-on urgency of the way some lines arrived, so in looking for a less-than-final-sounding system of punctuation, the colon I experimented with turned into the double colon (resembling the LEM’s footprint). Notre Dame Review published the poem a couple of years ago and, just a week ago, I turned in edits on the poetry book that will reprint it: The State She’s In, forthcoming in March from Tinderbox editions. It’s not an especially moony collection, but it contains a lot of work about history, and also about whiteness–and one ends up thinking a lot about different meanings of whiteness, watching those old news programs.

So on this full moon weekend, I’m posting a brief clip from revision-land. Edits for my poetry book and my novel came in basically simultaneously, right as the school year started, so I’m really tired and overwhelmed lately. And once the edits are mission-accomplished, there’s a LOT more to do, of course, to launch these books. But I hope to have covers to reveal in coming weeks!–and till then, one small step at a time.

Work: 25 notions & reveries

  1. This is my twenty-fifth fall teaching poetry at my first real job, at a liberal arts college in Virginia. I never thought I would stay this long.
  2. When I arrived, I was twenty-six with a new PhD and limited experience. A bunch of publications and a bazillion classes later, I am a better teacher, scholar, and poet, but I am still learning.
  3. During the same period, I brought into the world and helped raise two children. Five days ago, we moved the youngest into his first college dorm. He seems to be enjoying orientation but also has an appetite for academic work. His classes start tomorrow.
  4. So much change! This Labor Day weekend, I helped settle the eldest into a third-floor studio in a Philadelphia brownstone so she can start HER first real job. Her furnishings include items from my own post-graduation apartment: wooden chairs we picked up at a college surplus sale and a table we bought with one of Chris’ first paychecks as a high school teacher.
  5. It was fun to have a little spending money after a couple of years of grad-student penury, to buy a couch rather than lug a castoff away from a New Brunswick curb!
  6. Chris loved that teaching job, where he had stellar colleagues. The high school gig he started once we moved to Virginia was less rewarding in all ways.
  7. He taught there a while; then was a stay-at-home dad for a few years; then earned an MFA in fiction; then adjunct-taught at my college; and then, twenty years after the big move, earned a tenure-track slot in my department. He loves his job again.
  8. I mostly love mine, but I’ve seen it change massively. In the 90s, many students were amazing and some colleagues were role models, but classes were big, loads heavy. I still work sixty hours a week during the term but I can serve the students better; it feels saner.
  9. And they’re different students–more diverse in every way, in a century growing hotter by the minute. Demographics and politics change the job; these students need different things from me.
  10. I like change, I’ve realized, or at least some of it.
  11. Change is built into academic life. Tired of a certain course dynamic? No worries. The term is nearly over. You can reboot radically any minute now.
  12. Writing is like that, too. Within a poem, you pivot. Between projects, you reinvent what you aspire to do.
  13. Maybe I’m more fond of pivoting than some people?
  14. As I become an empty-nester, I am also becoming a stronger prose writer. My forthcoming novel will be called Unbecoming and it concerns midlife transitions.
  15. I’ll be doing final edits on the novel this fall, in between classes and committee work and grant applications and Shenandoah work. Yikes.
  16. I’m doing final edits on my forthcoming poetry book, The State She’s In, this week. Hard work, but fun, too.
  17. We have a launch date for the poetry book: March 17th, with prelaunch copies available at AWP!
  18. Awesome! Terrifying!
  19. This poetry book, my fifth full-length collection, feels like a big one.
  20. Everything feels momentous right now. Cusp, limen, hinge.
  21. My cat Ursula isn’t interested. She alternately sits on my neck, so I can’t type this post, and bites my toes, so I can’t type this post.
  22. When my daughter was applying for policy jobs in D.C., she felt anxious about it. Understandable, I thought–what a transition!–but I also admit I felt impatient. What would be the next step in her life, and therefore in mine?
  23. When she started applying for teaching jobs instead, her anxiety shifted to excitement. (Oh, I thought: it wasn’t just anxiety before, but inner struggle over a deeper uncertainty.) This Thursday, exactly one week after submitting her first four teaching applications, everything clicked. She was hired by a progressive preschool, a place that seems like a great fit for her–to start five days later. Double yikes.
  24. Follow the excitement is a pretty good life motto. It’s certainly a good way to write. If a project feels bogged down, I try to pivot, play around, think about what would make it fun again.
  25. Paychecks are important; doing useful work in the world is important. But the biggest question on my mind (besides, um, can I really meet all my obligations this school year?) is: how can I make these sad, hard, exhausting, exciting, whirlwind changes also, somehow, fun?