I haven’t been able to write lately due to disrupted mornings, which has thrown me off and made me rusty. I have spoken and written about the hour-a-day writing routine, and I want to admit here in the privacy of the Internet that the bar is super low for that hour. Here’s a chronicle of real writing as it just happened:
MY HOUR OF WRITING THIS MORNING
8:30 reply to 2 urgent emails.
8:31: Oh my god this morning pissed me off so much. The battle with my son over his iPod. The freaking diabetic cat. The illnesses. The …whatever. Arrrrrgggh. I haven’t had time to write in days and I think I have forgotten how. Arrrrrrgggghghg.
8:32: Send an essay to be read by one of my writing groups. Stare at my folder of stuff in progress and nothing looks interesting. Resign myself to starting this document. Hating everything including writing.
8:34: Move two folders from “in progress” to published to clean up a bit. Then move one more. Then add a pub to the file of my list of publications.
8:36: Stare again at the list of files, which looks like gibberish to me, like it’s written in another language. Consider working on a very convoluted and long philosophical essay and realize I don’t have the brain cells. Consider picking at another project that I’m waiting to hear back from an editor about and realize I can’t love that project anymore because it is breaking my heart.
8:39: I find a few hopeful interesting fragments in my folder of in-progress and realize it’s such a mess that I don’t know they’re there, and I need to clean it out, like I need to clean a lot of things, and I realize that—just for today—my brain cells can’t handle it.
8:40-8:43: Realize there’s a memory I need to log in one of my “in-progress” pre-essays in Evernote that is really just a collection of scraps waiting to be turned into something.
8:44: Move a few more pieces to the Published folder.
8:46: Make a folder to categorize the mess of the “in-progress.” Get bored with this. Realize I could make one new entry in a big project and that probably wouldn’t kill me.
8:47: As the file is opening make some disparaging remarks in my head about the hopelessness of this large project.
8:49: Open a page within this file (in Scrivener, so it’s in sections with titles) and realize it connects to a quote I just used in another essay from Susan Sontag. Look up the quote in Evernote, find that it’s incomplete with a page number, and go to the book to find the quote. Put it into the page in the file where it needs to go.
8:56: Thank the lord I’ve spent the last seven minutes writing. I polished up a paragraph in that section and finished it. It’s a tiny two-pager that was almost done, but then I got to change the icon to green, which in this project means “done.”
8:57: This project is working for me today and I haven’t worked on it in awhile, so I’m going to scroll through to find another file to work on.
8:59: Open another file, read three great quotes listed there from other authors, and realize that as I start to write I’m going use a cliché. My language is not great today. Then decide: just write and don’t worry about how much it sucks.
9:02: Realize that this file is hard to write because I have to feel hard things to figure something out. Complain in my head about that. Write a few more bad and totally obvious and unliterary sentences.
9:05: Basic writing. Trying to keep it simple. Doing sentences. Get up for a drink of water. Walk toward the stairs and bang my thigh hard against a corner of couch, which has been moved because I keep having to mop the floor over and over to try to clean up some scary sticky substance either being peed or puked by my diabetic cat. Mercy Retrograde will you please stop fucking with my shit?!?! My socks stick on the substance that I have not mopped up effectively but instead apparently spread EVERYWHERE.
9:09: Back with water and finished with rant about my poor cat.
9:14: Yay I wrote for five more minutes. My thigh hurts. The dog is roaming around upstairs, expecting a walk, and I have a ton of stuff to do before I go into work. But I’m writing until 9:30 because that’s the promise I always make.
9:17: Finish a second section. It’s not pretty; I’m not making lovely sentences today, I’m making drafts. But I turn another icon green. It will do for now. I open a third section.
9:17-9:32: Wrote something! It’s a win for the day. It’s messy, but it’s a win.
* * * *
It’s always slow to get into a routine. But the routine is worth it because it is how our brains function most effectively. It also doesn’t matter at all if it feels rusty. It’s the routine that matters to me.
I’m readying a fascinating book, How We Learn: The Surprising Truth about When, Where, and Why It Happens by Benedict Carey. A section about the effectiveness of quizzing one’s self at regular intervals in order to retain material made me think more and more about writing and routine.
Carey writes that the value of quizzes in language acquisition and many other subjects is that knowledge is put in play in an active rather than passive form. Active engagement–just like writing. And of course, at this point he includes a quote by Jorge Luis Borges: “Writing long books is a laborious and impoverishing act of foolishness: expanding in five hundred pages an idea that could be perfectly explained in a few minutes. A better procedure is to pretend that those books already exist and offer a summary, a commentary.” Carey then connects this to the general theory of learning he’s explaining: “Pretend you are already an expert and give a summary, a commentary–pretend and perform.”
This, to me, is the soul of writing practice. I write on a regular schedule not because I’m super-disciplined and because that’s the most challenging thing. I write this way because it’s the easiest. As my brain gets into the habit of making connections on documents in progress, it gets in a groove and does its own thing. When I’m rusty, writing is more of a struggle. And the bar is super low. All that matters is the container, not what’s in it. And if I build the container, it really doesn’t matter how little I get done. Some day in the future, it will all start working again, until something else throws it awry–but I can always go back and build it again.