considering the other: things that get in the way of writing

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 powellRen (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.

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13 comments to considering the other: things that get in the way of writing

  • My children are grown and gone from my home, my husband died many years ago. Independent, living alone in a quiet neighborhood, I’m in an ideal situation for a writer. People pay for the sort of writer’s retreat I can have every day. Of course, I also have a job and must leave my retreat – but, at home there is no other person I need to consider. The only impairment to my writing is me.

    I do my best writing in the morning, in bed. Oh, I’ll visit the bathroom – but, that’s it. No coffee-making, no shower, no dressing, no going down stairs. My lap top is by my bed – I boot up and begin. I want to be as close to my dreaming mind as possible. Morning poems. I revise in the evenings.

    If I don’t include this routine in my day – if I make excuses – I simply don’t get writing done.

  • My instructor does her writing in bed, too. . . doubt she forgoes coffee, though :-) What an interesting routine. Do the events of the day give you a good distance for revising? Or do you revise older work in the evenings?

  • Ren, excellent question. I am most happy when
    I am caught up in a poem-in-process. Of course, during the day I teach AP Eng Lit and don’t consciously think of the poem I worked on that morning. But, in the evening, after paper grading, etc., I find if I look at current poems in progress there are good revisions I can make.

    The point I see I failed to explain is – the routine of writing in bed in the morning and revising in the evening is my optimum writing routine – but one I don’t always follow because I make excuses for myself and LIFE intervenes.

  • I found this post really interesting, because it’s always insightful to see the way different people structure their lives and find balance between obligation and creative fulfillment.

    I’ve been working kind of dead-end administrative jobs for the past few years, while I look for a job more in my field. Some people would find this job really boring and unsatisfying, but it leaves me a lot of time (even during work hours — shhh) to write and work on personal projects. I make it a goal to write a poem each work day. Sometimes things are busy and I can’t manage it, but for the most part I get it done. If I hadn’t established a writing “ritual” or schedule, like you have, there is absolutely no way I would have grown as much as I have as a poet by now.

    Also, I love what you said about writing as a way of just being mindful and being open to creative inspiration. Sometimes I feel like, because we live in such a high-drive, ends-focused society, it’s hard not to feel pressured to dive head-first into these things and invest a lot of your time in them. I like, instead, to think of poetry as more of a lifestyle than a career or ambition. After all, you don’t do it for the money — it’s a labour of love.

  • I am in the same boat as Shayla. I do write during my workday. So do many of the other poets in my local community (one told me once that she got busted for printing out her output at work). You gotta do what you gotta do.

    Like her, some days I am just plain too busy. My goal is a poem a week. I consider that an accomplishment, given the full schedule I tend to have. I carry a small notebook around in my purse and keep one near my chair and bed to catch when the Universe opens up and drops onto my head. Or when it’s in little dribbles. You could say that I’m an opportunist.

    -Nicole

  • Yeah, I write at work. But I also work an awful lot at home. Flexi-time :-) I have never set a goal of a poem a day or a poem a week, even (and stuck to it). Another thing to aspire to!

    Nicole, do you have a goal of a draft a week or a full-fledged finished, ready-to-show/submit poem?

  • Thankyou again for another well written and entertaining article.

    The only discipline or routine in my life is nailing the Doris factor.A term coined in our household for domestic drudgery.It takes work to be free.Neither of us can work in chaos so order is prioritised.All the chaos and wild
    stuff occurs in my work (not his)

    My writing occurs on the whim.There are days when I don’t write but I read constantly which is essential for writing. A painter friend of mine said once when asked in an interview “How long did it take to paint that?” He replied fifty eight years,and I understood immediately
    what he meant.

    I have only written poetry regularly in the last year or so.There are days when I write for two days straight,when I work for hours on one piece because I enjoy it,not because I am virtuous.

    Poetry is my luxury.I will never be assessed
    in meritocratic terms because I am never submitting it for official publication.I had to go to hospital recently and I put on my form
    retired academic /poet for occupation. The attending doctor said he had just been having a conversation about iambic pentameter.I don’t think it was true.I think he was just testing me to see if I was mad.

    I like people who write poetry even though I only know them virtually and not in real life.This is a part of virtual life that I prefer to real life.
    I am also thrilled when I get a favourable comment from a poet whose work I respect. It sustains me for days.The only reason I have post graduate degrees is because of the essay
    writing component.I love writing anything and I like the challenge of transforming the most turgid boring topic or prompt into something interesting.I almost always write in bed (alone!)

  • “The attending doctor said he had just been having a conversation about iambic pentameter.I don’t think it was true.I think he was just testing me to see if I was mad.” HAHA!

    All this writing in bed… did you all see John Burrough’s reading in bed? http://crisisblog.crisischronicles.com/2010/03/06/in-bed-with-pessoa–disquiet-64-65-66.aspx

  • I loved this post. The part that really resonated with me was “the Muse will arrive and slip under my skin again, as long as I leave the door open.” That is the key. Leaving the door open. Thank you for that reminder.

    Earlier today, I was telling a friend (a fiction writer) that I felt like I was on the verge of a burst of creativity. I believe in telling her that, I was opening the door a crack and allowing space for the Muse to enter. I may not have a ritual or stick to a plan of daily writing, but the first step is that consciousness of time and what I am doing with it. I find that, with poetry, I have to feel it and be in the right mood to write it. With fiction or non-fiction, someone could say, “write about xxxx” and I could pick up a pen and do it. With poetry, I don’t have that same relationship. I do recognize that I need to open up space and invite it to join me from time to time instead of treating it like an uncooperative lover. :)

    Thank you for these moments of awareness. :)

  • Thank you, Kimberlee, for thinking out loud! Nice to have feedback and dialogue! It is interesting to hear that you have a different relationship to poetry than you do to prose. Love your metaphor of the uncooperative lover!

  • I’ve learned to write what I need to write in bursts and to clear everything else out of the way when I need one of these bursts. I don’t tend to write poems one at a time. I think more like a songwriter, I guess, and so when I have, let’s say, an EP worth of poem ideas (usually tied together in some way) I’ll know it’s time, and I’ll just put things off and sit down and work them out–because I just have to. My wife is really supportive. She can see when I’m in that zone and she helps me make the time.

    If you’re hungry, you have to stop everything else and eat or else you won’t survive, right? I treat poetry the same way. It works for me because a) I don’t necessarily have to find time daily to be successful and b) as I anticipate having free time–knowing there’s a four-day weekend, for instance–I become subconsciously more creative, as if my mind knows when it’s going to have to get the job done and begins to prep for it on its own.

    I’m also a teacher, so summer is a highly productive time. During the summer, I write every day on a schedule. About half the poems I wrote in 2009 were done between the end of May and the middle of August.

  • I was never disciplined about writing before my book came out–now my “poetry-time” is “poetry-promotion-time”. I’ve only so much time after all… So I’ve made a pact with my pal Jan O’Neil to write 2 poems a week. We don’t even have to workshop them, just email ‘em in. It’s been tough! I write after the kids go to bed or in between teaching classes… Long ago, I did try Julila Cameron’s morning pages–which sounds similar to what you’re talking about Ren–but I NEVER did them in the morning (not a morning person!) It helped to ramble. It helped that I had “poetry-time” in addition to this “ramble-time/morning-pages-time”. Sigh. I’ll find a way, new way to make (let?) the writing happen!

  • Thanks for this, Ren. Fifteen minutes seems like a nice wedge to keep the door ajar. If you see our mutual muse, tell her “hi” for me. :)

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