Daily Routines

My dad used to say about my mother’s art schedule, “Now if Ruth would just get up in the morning and start painting, she’d really get something done.” Then he would go off to work. Yet despite the lack of a clear schedule, my mother completed hundreds of paintings during her lifetime. e86eeccde64e0cc3271becfeae872c76

I’ve always thought that if I had a regular writing schedule or clearer goals, I could get more done. Or maybe if I could find out how other writers do it, I could tap into some magic formula.

Mason Currey has turned “Daily Routines,” the blog he has been writing for the last six years, into Daily Rituals: How Artists Work (Alfred A. Knopf),  a most amazing collection of the routines of 161 composers, painters, architects, performers, writers, and other creative individuals.

So while I procrastinate, it’s enlightening to read how others managed to do what they do. The American composer, John Feldman, said that he had received the best advice from John Cage, who advised him to “write a little bit, stop and then copy it. Because while you’re copying it, you’re thinking about it, and it’s giving you other ideas.” He also believed in practical things:  the right pen and a good chair. Jane Austen wrote in her family sitting room, “subject to all kinds of casual interruptions.” Gertrude Stein liked to write outdoors where she could look at rocks and cows in the intervals of her writing. She was never able to write more than half an hour a day. “If you write a half hour a day it makes a lot of writing year by year. To be sure all day and every day you are waiting around to write that half hour a day,” she said.41kaZ6C4clL._AA160_

We learn all sorts of other interesting details from Currey’s collection. Louis Armstrong, a lifelong insomniac, always took Swiss Kriss, a potent herbal laxative before falling to sleep, lulled by music. Joseph Cornell constructed his boxes at night at the kitchen table. Patricia Highsmith was a chain smoker, who loved her vodka. According to one of her acquaintances she “only ate American bacon, fried eggs and cereal, all at odd times of the day.” She was also inspired by snails. “They give me a sort of tranquility,” she said about the three hundred snails in her English garden.130411_dailyRituals_intro.jpg.CROP_.multipart2-medium

As for me, I find it impossible to write in the office I created to write in. Right now I’m sitting at the kitchen counter, surrounded by newspapers and a few dirty dishes. My Kindle is open beside me as I read Currey’s book. But the best part: I’m listening to Willie Nelson. “No, you don’t know me,” he sings. “You ain’t missing me. I let my chance go by.” Only a few steps away in the cupboard is my stash of Hershey chocolate bars. And in a few minutes, I can stop writing and take Sam, our dog, and his cousin, Myles, for a walk.  I’m always looking for reasons to take a break! And besides, Roger Miller is now singing “King of the Road”: “No phone, no pets, I ain’t got no cigarettes.” Is he trying to tell me something about his routine?


Writing Jumpstart:

What’s your routine? Go for ten minutes. Or write about your ways to avoid writing. What about other artists you know? How do they work?


The Real Me?

A couple of days ago I decided that I needed an “About Me” page on the website. As most of you know, this is standard procedure for websites and blogs–a place for the creator of the site to say a little about him/herself and to state the purpose of the site. So I added one.

A Turtle Nobody

A Turtle Nobody

Now I’m having second thoughts. I need to clarify that what I wrote is not “the real me.” The real me is sitting here in her bathrobe trying to put thoughts together. The real me struggles every day to write. The real me spends an awful lot of time reading the paper in a comfy chair on the deck, where the real me stops reading to listen to the birds. (Today the real me is watching a stalwart swallow try to build a nest in the recessed light fixture.) The real me wastes a lot of time. But can I say this on my “About Me” page?

Several years ago when my friend Marge Barrett and I started teaching our classes at the Loft in Minneapolis, we decided not to spend the first class having folks go around saying their names and introducing themselves in the usual way because all of that ended up taking the entire first class period. In the long run, it isn’t that important what we did, or even wrote, before the class started. The main purpose is to get down to the business of writing.

By now, if we’ve lived long enough, we all have a lot to say about ourselves, and for the most part, much of it is in the past. So that is the reason I’ll probably take down the “About Me” page. It feels so past. It reveals such a fraction of who I am or even was. (“I’m Nobody,” says Emily Dickinson. “Then there are two of us./How dreary to be Somebody!/How public like a Frog….”)

The Real Me?

The Real Me?

Oh, and in case you haven’t guessed, that photo on the “About Me” page isn’t the real me. Here’s a more recent one, which since I hardly ever fish, isn’t the real me either.

The point I’d like to make: Let’s not compare ourselves to others (including those writers we see on book jackets) or even to our alternate or past selves for that matter. Our time is better spent simply writing–or fishing (another metaphor for writing.) Maybe being a Nobody isn’t such a bad thing–it allows us so much more freedom.

The poet William Stafford (“A Ritual to Read to Each Other”) has said:

“If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.”
― William Edgar StaffordThe Way It Is: New and Selected Poems


Writing Jumpstart: “The Real Me?” Go for ten minutes. Try this in your writer’s notebook for several days and see what happens.  (I’ll continue to add these jumpstarts to the posts.  What’s “ten minutes” in a whole day? If you feel so inclined, send me one of your ten-minute writings. See contact page of the site.)


The Secret

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could, once and for all, grab onto that one bit of advice that will make all the difference? In a recent New York Times essay, “The Art of Being Still,” Silas House writes:


I was a young, naïve, foolish writer who was searching for my way. I swallowed hard and asked him [James Still] if he had any advice on how to be a better writer. He didn’t answer for a long minute, gazing off at the hills as if ignoring me.

But then he spoke, and I realized that he had taken that moment for quiet thought. “Discover something new every day,” he said. That advice changed me as a writer and as a person.”

The narrator Paul Chowder of Nicholson Baker’s novel, The Anthologist (one of my favorite novels), says:


 And then a man of forty or so, with a French accent, asked, “How do you achieve the presence of mind to initiate the writing of a poem?” And something cracked open in me, and I finally stopped hoarding and told them my most useful secret. The only secret that has helped me consistently over all the years that I’ve written. I said, “Well, I’ll tell you how. I ask a simple question. I ask myself: What was the very best moment of your day?” The wonder of it was, I told them that this one question could lift out from my life exactly what I will want to write a poem about. Something I hadn’t known was important will leap out and hover there in front of me, saying I am—I am the best moment of the day. . . . Often, I went on, it’s a moment when you’re waiting for someone, or you’re driving somewhere, or maybe you’re just walking across a parking lot and admiring the oil stains and the dribbled tar patterns. One time it was when I was driving past a certain house that was screaming with sunlitness on its white clapboards, and then I plunged through tree shadows that splashed and splayed across the windshield. I thought, Ah, of course— I’d forgotten. You, windshield shadows, you are the best moment of the day. “And that’s my secret, such as it is,” I said.

― Nicholson BakerThe Anthologist

What’s your secret, such as it is?  What advice would you give? Or what have you learned from someone else?

Let me know.

In the meantime, I’m going to try to write or photograph (or both) the best moment of each day. Or something new. Right now, it is this quiet moment before our house guests arrive. (We have a lot of them here in Florida.)

A Note in a Bottle: Sending Our Writing into the World

During the last five weeks of our writing class (“Jumpstart Your Writing”) here on Sanibel, we’ve used the metaphor of a “note in a bottle” to talk about writing: the note as the words we write and the bottle as the container for the words. This bottle can come in many shapes. It could be in the shape of a single poem, story, or essay. It could be a collection of poems, stories, or essays. It could be a novel or a memoir. What about a blog entry? an editorial in a newspaper? a carefully constructed letter to a granddaughter? So the bottle is the shape we give to our writing.

When we’ve written and shaped our pieces into some sort of container, it is time to toss that note and bottle into the sea. (This is particularly apt because Sanibel is a slip of an island on the Gulf of Mexico.) In other words, it is time to send our writing out into the world.

The very act of bringing our shaped final piece to the class, then reading it, and passing out copies to each other is the simplest and most basic way of throwing our bottles into the sea. We’ve taken our words out of the notebooks, shaped them into some form, and sent them on their way.

Some of us may send our “notes in bottles” beyond a class or writers’ group. Maybe we’ll publish one of  our poems or short essays in the local newspaper; maybe we’ll send a piece to our families; maybe we’ll submit our writing to a contest or a magazine. We don’t always know where our writing will end up, or who will read it, for that matter.781sunderland_Janetheadshot

Janet Sunderland, one of the contributors to the anthology, When Last Mountain: The View from Writers over Fifty, is about to toss her note in a bottle into the sea. We’ve stayed in touch since the anthology was published, and she wrote to tell me that her chapbook of poems, At the Boundary, will be forthcoming from Finishing LIne Press. She writes: “That goal [of publishing a book] has been elusive to me and perhaps for a good reason. Perhaps I simply wasn’t ready to take on the daunting task of marketing and selling a book. As writers, we love to write. Marketing? Well, not so much.” So sometimes it takes a bit more of an effort to get that bottle out there. But Janet has done it.product_info

And so have the writers in the class.

Getting our work out of notebooks and into the world isn’t always easy, but then we can move on to create more notes in more bottles for more people to discover.

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” –Maya Angelou

To find Janet’s book, go to Finishing Line Press, PREORDER FORTHCOMING TITLES You can read her bio and reviews of her chapbook. Congratulations, Janet!

Does It Work?

One of the questions that frequently arises in a writing workshop is “Does it work?”

When applied to writing, the question (“Does it work?”) is a general one; and the writer is often left wondering: does the story stop working because of a point of view shift on the third page or because of a point of view shift and a botched ending and a lack of clarity concerning what the story was about?  And if it doesn’t work for all the reasons discussed by the group, what then? How can the writing be improved?

It takes quite a mechanic to analyze all the ways a story (or poem) can go wrong. Besides who is to say for sure that the piece has gone wrong in all those ways? The stories and novels of William Faulkner or Virginia Woolf would never have made it out of our workshops. Faulkner’s sentences would have been trimmed, and Woolf’s point-of-view shifts corrected.

Would their writing have been better for such suggestions? Andre Dubus, in his collection of essays Meditations from a Movable Chair, includes a letter he wrote to his own workshop group. In “Letter to a Writer’s Workshop,” he says, “ ‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber’ would not have survived us without a stubborn author.” He goes on to say that what is important is “that Hemingway wrote it and we can read it, and if he made mistakes, if he left things unclear, well, that’s better than scurrying home to revise and revise and revise and make it clear to everyone.”

In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott describes a workshop where things got completely out of hand. An inexperienced writer had offered his piece to a group, led by Lamott, at a large, prestigious conference. His story was experimental, used bad dialect, and wasn’t very good. The other students mentioned things they liked, things they thought worked. Lamott offered a few suggestions for changing certain passages. The author raised some questions. It was all very polite.

Then one woman who had remained silent all along raised her hand: “Am I crazy? Am I losing my mind? Am I the only person who doesn’t think it worked at all? Did anyone actually think there was one believable character, one meaningful image. . . .” And she continued. Everyone’s nightmare workshop. Lamott goes on to explain that what the woman had said was true on a certain level—the story wasn’t very good—yet the commentator was a better, more experienced writer than the author of the story being discussed. Of course the critic was being honest, and what she said had taken a certain amount of courage, but had she really helped the writer?

Some teachers, students, or group members will always feel that they must be honest. The story stinks and, by golly, the writer needs to know this. Some writers seem to want this brand of honesty—or at least they say they do, and they say they’re better for it. Don’t writers need to know when their writing doesn’t work? Isn’t that what we’re asking for? Yes and no.

Yes, we do want honest feedback; no, we don’t want mild sadism. Workshops, writing classes, and writing groups are often composed of writers at many different levels, with many different goals, as well as different styles and voices. We aren’t all trying to be published in The New Yorker.

So why not ask the writer what she or he wants from you, the reader, the person giving feedback. Maybe the writer isn’t ready for the heavy hand. Maybe this is an early draft, and the writer wants to give the piece some air. He or she could pose a couple of questions—like “I’m not happy with the ending. What do you think?” or “Any ideas for a better way to start the piece?” Maybe the writer is near the end of the revision process and wants close editing of a certain part. The main thing is to ask what the writer wants or needs and then direct feedback to addressing that question. Then move on.

The workshop or group could encourage the writer to continue writing more stories or poems or whatever rather than trying to mold one piece into greatness. I’ll never forget a welder, a Vietnam vet, who took a writing class at the community college where I taught. He showed up in our college writing group one afternoon. Would we take a look at a poem he had written? He took out his billfold and drew out a piece of paper that had been folded and refolded hundreds of times. The edges were frayed; the paper had been creased so many times that it almost floated into the room in fourths. Then he read us a poem full of clichés and generalities. It was the only poem he had ever written. He looked up. “What do you think? Is it good enough for the college magazine? Be honest.”

It was the poem of his life, a poem that said everything about lost love that had ever been said or ever would be said. We could have told him that the poem was hopeless. It was full of abstractions without a single clear image. Instead we said, “Write more. In one, tell us exactly how she looked; in another, about the day you met; in another, about the way her mouth felt on yours.” Better to have written twenty poems about a lost love than one.

Instead of spending all of the group time workshopping each other’s writing, the group could focus on a certain element of craft. Spend time talking about point of view in several stories, then throw in one or two from Chekhov or Alice Munro. Then do some exercises on point of view. Or spend time rewriting a section of a story from a different point of view. In other words, don’t just talk about writing all the time. Write when you’re together. Rather than talking about the last stanza of a poem for twenty minutes, stop and have everyone write the last stanza of their own poem and then read it to each other. The same with the last paragraph of a story. This would give the writer some psychic support as he or she struggles with the ending.

Be careful about writing comments on the piece of writing. Teachers of writing spend years learning how to give comments–what’s too much, what’s just right, what will be helpful. Many writers in workshops repeat the red-pencil punishment of their own experiences with English teachers. These writers will make harsh red-ink comments on the story; they will slash through entire pages of writing. Maybe their comments have value, but it is the exceptional writer who can see many of these red marks and still have faith in the core value of the story, poem, or essay. Many of the marks might be simple editing suggestions, so be sure that the writer wants the fine-tuning that comes at the end of the revision process. There is nothing wrong with editing. Yet while attention to the word-level of a piece of writing can improve it, often this is still surface work and doesn’t get to deeper levels of structure, voice, theme, or characterization.

Coming together as a group can be a strong motivating force. We set a deadline; we bring in our work. We talk to others about the problems of writing. At times we love and cherish the company. We value the help of fellow writers who will ask questions and give us the courage to return to our writing and work on a piece until it sings with truth.

Yet we need also to free ourselves from a method of criticism that often can become harsh or tell us more than we can assimilate, one that frequently gives the leader’s word the greatest power, that may encourage a red-pencil, judgmental approach sending us back to some primal state from which we can never graduate.

Our goal is help each other become the best writer possible–to keep each other writing with the faith to revise and to value our own way of saying things. In his letter to his workshop, Dubus writes, “What is art if not a concentrated and impassioned effort to make something with the little we have, the little we see?”  And then to call what we have made beautiful with mysterious imperfections.