I walk along the beach and look at the sea. I call a friend. I take a train journey and sit by the window. I drink a small glass of red wine. I go to the cinema. I ride my bike fast, so that my hair streams out behind me. I cry. I read Eimear McBride. I make soup. I listen to Nick Cave. I go swimming. I sit in the sun with my eyes closed. I wash dishes. I read Jenny Offill. I write….
Whenever I feel stuck or overwhelmed with a writing project, I try to take a step back and ask myself three questions: What needs to start? What needs to stop? What needs to change? And then I make lists or action items in response to those questions.
Rigoberto González helped me understand that my success as a writer would hinge on my success as a reader. I’ve translated that advice into a ratio. For every poem or page I write, I try to read three times as much work by other people. I don’t have a ledger or anything but you get the idea.
I ride a commuter train forty minutes each way to work. That’s when I write. Having to come to the page twice a day for short bursts gets me writing very fast; there’s very little wasted time. I’ve never been so productive in my life.
“A good writing day will end with the desire to keep writing—that’s one of the only aspects of this whole process that has remained constant for me.”
—Téa Obreht, in the September/October issue of Poets & Writers Magazine (2019)
It’s necessary to write terrible lines, awful drafts, half-hearted poems. Write ten in a row if needed. Throw pencils, get mad, take a walk. Swear off poetry, read a chapter of a post-apocalyptic novel, wash the dishes. Feel better? Back to writing. Repeat as necessary.
I’ve figured out how to structure a story based on a common chord progression from a ’90s pop song. I’ve stolen a critical line of dialogue from a tampon commercial. It’s not that everything in life is inspiring—I personally find social media to be a wasteland—but it’s been surprising to see what seeps in and informs the work. For me, being open for business is about being deep in a project even when I haven’t opened the document for a week. It’s about noticing stuff, listening and synthesizing….
It’s easy to sleep too much, spend hours watching cake-icing videos on Instagram, and imagine I’ll never write again. Going outside, looking at the world, and talking to people helps me shake off the malaise. Turns out, once my body moves, so does my mind. Then the words follow.
Writers are artists, which means that (in my experience, anyway) we have to work hard to protect our creative time, our imaginations, in the midst of all the other parts of our lives—not just work but family, bills, laundry, taxes, car repairs, and so on. For me it’s all about creating psychic, emotional boundaries, so that I have time to feel free and unencumbered while I’m working, no matter what else is going on. That’s a real struggle, of course. I don’t really believe in balance; I believe in trying to sustain a feeling of wholeness, which means, in large part, taking care of other things you need to do so that you can feel free in your work, and also realizing that success in your career is only one part of a larger whole, which involves paying attention to your physical health, your relationships, your children and partner, your religious practice, your financial obligations, and so on.
I think about the ways that Procter & Gamble or whatever makes money off my self-doubt. That usually shifts my determination. Nobody benefits from my fear except the people who want to sell me Lean Pockets and compulsory femininity—and fuck those people. They’re not going to get that dollar, not today!