by Ren Powell
Every morning these past 2 months, I have rolled out of bed, turned off the alarm and trudged downstairs to my office to set a new alarm. I sit in a beanbag chair and write, by hand, in a journal for 15 minutes. Then I head off to the shower to get ready for my day job. It isn’t that I get anything done in those 15 minutes. It is the principle of ritual.
It’s an idea I got from the choreographer Twyla Tharp’s book The Creative Habit. Tharp explains that her ritual isn’t the morning workout: it is the process of getting up and into the taxi that takes her to the gym. She explains that she actually enjoys the workout, but without the ritual, she wouldn’t be certain to get to that point each day: Other things get in the way too easily.
I wish I could say that every morning when the alarm goes off at 6 a.m., I have hopped joyfully out of bed, looking forward to writing my page of non sequiturs. Some Mondays I have crawled slowly on all fours to the office and cursed a blue streak when there was no ink in any of the pens (all of which I tossed back into the drawer, of course – carving dry and desperate spirals in the margins of my journal with empty pens has become a ritual in itself). But no matter how late I actually get started, I have always prioritized the 15 minute writing alarm. It means there have been days I got to work with damp hair and no make-up. And that is fine. I’ve found that, vain as I am, I am honestly a person who values her identity as a writer — as defined and evidenced by the actual activity of writing — more than her identity as an attractive and tidy person. More than the dignity of matching socks. More than a packed lunch.
Believe me, the 15 minutes isn’t the enjoyable workout. It is the taxi ride during which I establish for myself the reality of my days.
I admire people who manage to get up an hour early to make time for their writing. I may someday choose to try that. At the moment, though, this ritual of 15 minutes is about becoming conscious of how I prioritize my time: what happens when I try to write and the other things in my life that prevent me from writing. Or that I have thought prevented me from writing.
This morning, for example, my pen stopped on the page because I heard the song birds for the first time this spring. They were “twittering at 6:06 outside my window” and I couldn’t think of a thing to write after that statement. I just listened. For a moment, it seemed the birds had returned and the Muse had taken off. Then the garbage truck arrived and idled and strained and coughed and left. These sounds are some of those other things that get in the way of my writing.
This morning’s production on the page looked more meager than usual and I trudged downstairs to the shower and then off to work. To my students: more “others” that take up my time and days and thoughts and keep me from writing.
This afternoon, my time will be filled with grant-writing, something other than the kind of writing I want to do. Then I will have to tidy the house, pay bills, make dinner, prepare lesson plans, quiz the kids on their homework … I have a whole list of other things to do before I can settle down in front of my computer to work on my own poetry.
Who am I kidding?
Do I sit down every single day to write poetry? No. I watch TV. I read magazines. I surf the web. I write in seasons. Like the songbirds that showed up this morning, the Muse will arrive and slip under my skin again, as long as I leave the door open.
I have found that the 15 minutes I spend each morning writing, even when it is nothing more than “can’t stop thinking about the bills, can’t stop thinking about the bills” in increasingly larger script, is like looking out the door each day. Maybe the Muse will come today. Meanwhile all these other things, things that “get in the way” of my writing fall into lines — on the page.
I have forgiven myself for not having the discipline to sit in my office from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. and write. Or for not getting up at 5 a.m instead of 6 a.m. The 15-minute ritual has had the effect of making me mindful. I have discovered that the right thing for me to do is not to cut out the “other” things, but to realize the integrity of my life as a poet. It is all this other stuff that I will draw from when the Muse finally shows up and gives me the opportunity for a really good workout.
Who said success is when preparation meets opportunity? Isn’t that also a good definition of poetry?
How do you deal with the other things that get in the way of poetry?
(I actually wrote this post before reading Robert Peake’s column. It may as well have been in dialogue. Seems we might have a mutual muse.)
Ren (Katherine) Powell is native Californian living on the west coast of Norway. Ren has published three collections of poetry and 11 books of translations. She is a graduate adviser with Prescott College’s brief residency MA program and is pursuing a doctorate in creative writing at Lancaster University in England. Learn more at her website.