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.