Taking in different forms of art and looking at them critically opens my mind up to different possibilities in my poetry. (Museums are great for that too.) But simply reading good writing helps most of all….I’ll also play a bit of musical chairs if I’m stuck in the writing, moving from one seat to another, one room to another, or I’ll leave the apartment altogether for a change of scenery. I’ll read my lines aloud to see if the sounds and rhythms can carry me forward.
I return over and over to this passage—’I didn’t know it could be done. I had never seen it done. I had, in fact, been told it couldn’t be done’—from Julia Alvarez’s ‘On Finding a Latino Voice.’
If I’m stuck….then I’ll actually play—like a child does. I’ll skip writing altogether for the day, and at night, I’ll grab my kids’ wooden train tracks and work on a new layout. I’ll put together a dinosaur puzzle. Sometimes, I draw and color with their markers and glitter glue. I’ll make a giraffe or building with their Duplo bricks. Oftentimes, I find that what I need is simply the space and permission for a different type of imagining.
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.
It’s taken years for me to realize what my book is even about, years to feel out the full story….When I go back and read old sections, I find things I have no memory of writing. Sometimes, present-me is impressed by past-me. Good job, I’ll think. This thread has been there all along! Other times I think past-me must have been drunk or asleep or that she’s messing with me on purpose. Goodbye, ten-page monologue on Tupperware, I’ll say. Goodbye, bitter side character based on a Subway sandwich artist I slept with in 2002.