“Writing things down can be dangerous. If I sit at the desk without a clear idea of what I want to say, I can get into all sorts of trouble. I love the physical act of writing, like a kid who's just learned to whistle loves whistling, and before I know it, I can generate pages of prose. Hours (days) can be wasted on a story that ends up trying to beat a path through an increasingly thick jungle of possibilities, dead ends, and pitfalls. I've learned it's better to stalk the story down in my head first.
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“I think the most valuable resource for writing is confidence, since everything from the vagaries of publishing to writing itself can wear you down. When you are writing, you are so in your own head that it can be hard to know if the work is brilliant or a failure, but you have to put aside those doubts. One of my secrets to maintaining confidence is a yearly viewing of Tim Burton’s 1994 biopic Ed Wood. As a director in the 1950s, Ed Wood was the ultimate outsider. He made movies with zero budgets that were deeply personal, strange, and completely ignored.
“I’ve told my students in the past that writing is 90 percent procrastination. Very little of it involves actually sitting at a computer or scratching letters into a notebook; the thinking part comprises the majority of the work. Embracing that principle has kept me from going cross-eyed while frowning into the blue screen of an empty Microsoft Word document at 4:00 AM in an attempt to will some compelling character or situation to leap into life. It always helps to have a plan before you sit down and wrack your brain. But if you find yourself in such a jam, go do anything else.
“Temperamentally, I set great store by orderliness for inspiration. I like a clean kitchen, a well-made bed, and a tidy desk before I start writing. Sometimes the orderliness gets sinister—not only because of the oft-made charge of procrastination, but also because once everything is collected, clean, and cheerful, a space suddenly appears for the spirit to wilt, the intelligence to become disenchanted. But philosophically, I tend to hold to it.
“Look, I’m far from military material. Undisciplined, hate authority, my ethics—perverted. But there is one military tenant I can and do get behind every time I sit down to write, and you probably know it already: ‘Embrace the suck.’ It’s going to suck, you guys. Big time. The sooner you accept that and get on with it anyway, the sooner you’re done. Why prolong your own suffering? Instead, treat it like a job. And that is trick number one: Buy a time clock. Although a bit noisy, I like the old school ones with the punch cards. Put your hours in.
“If you were to glance over the chaos across my desk—inkless pens, paperbacks, an infant toothbrush—you might miss the object I count most valuable: a plastic rainbow-colored slinky. For years, whenever I found myself blocked, I’d pick up the slinky and toss it from hand to hand while walking in circles around my room. Maybe it’s the repetition of the sound, the shuffling of springs, but my mind burrows inside the world I’m building, unobliged to form an elegant sentence. I like elegant sentences, but my initial attempts are almost always doomed.
“Above my desk, some talismans: ‘The Floor Scrapers’ by Gustave Caillebotte. I saw it when I was fourteen at the Musee D’Dorsay. The play of light on the floor got my attention, then it kept opening: What are the two on the right saying? Whose apartment is it, and will the people who live there feel the presence of this work when it’s done? Regardless, here are occupied bodies on a given day.
“My reality consists of full-time work, parenting, family, friends, and a laptop full of clients. When to write? One shift I made was to identify my ‘golden hour,’ the most conducive time of day for creative risk-taking, making, and doing. My husband is a night owl, but for me, it’s 4:00 AM to 6:00 AM. Everyone’s asleep, I’m freshly energized and not yet cluttered with the day’s noise. I make a list of no more than three goals to focus on so I can hit the ground running and make the most of it.
“Years ago, a friend told me that she thinks of writer’s block as ‘fallow time,’ the season the farmer leaves the field unsown so that crops can grow more productively (I’m a city girl; I had to look it up). I’ve had some long fallow seasons—months, years—when I haven’t been able to start the story that’s burning inside of me. In retrospect, I realize that I wasn’t ready. But a writer has to write. So how do you start again after an extended dormant period? These strategies have worked for me: Try this prompt. Have your character reveal a secret she’s never told anybody before.
“At some point I realized that I’m incapable of writing poems unless someone forces me to do it. Revising is easier for me; it can happen even against my better judgment as soon as I open a document. But someone’s got to make me do that first act of writing—I have to feel accountable to real, meat-and-blood people other than myself to make it happen. So I write most of my first drafts as part of a poem-a-day challenge.