Monday, December 31, 2012
I've never been one to make New Year's resolutions. It has always seemed to me that if there's something you need to do or change then you just do or change it. No matter what month of the year it is. And if you have to think about what resolution to form for the new year--i.e., if it's not glaringly obvious--then chances are you are doing pretty well, and you should just carry on. But I have to admit that there is something about the dawning of a new year that prods some people into action, into committing themselves to doing or changing what they've long known they should. And that, especially if they follow through, is certainly a positive thing. That was me last year around this time, when I made the sudden resolution to write creatively every single day of the year 2012. Not that I wasn't consistent and dedicated in my writing before. I talk to my students all the time about making writing a
habit--and I've blogged about this--and for much of my writing life this has more or less meant getting up early on weekdays and writing before the rest of the house wakes and life must begin. Of course, there were always days when the burden of grading student papers was simply too great, and I had to sacrifice my writing time to that duty. And there were the days when I traveled to conferences: crazy busy affairs in which once the day starts there is barely any down time to be found. There were other days when I was visiting out-of-town family and didn't feel the requirement to push myself to the notebook or the computer. And then there weekends when I afforded my creative brain some time off. Still and all, I was living the message. At least I thought so until some visiting writers came to my campus who indicated that working writers should literally write every day. Even on a beach vacation. Even on Christmas. Even if you travel to a conference! One of these writers, Heather Sellers, in her book Chapter After Chapter frames the idea this way: Even if you are on leave of absence from your home you do not take a leave of absence from your book. It might just mean working on it a bit differently. You could bring a few chapters with you to line edit. Or you could exchange novels-in-progress with another writer, and you agree to read each other's work while you're away. In that way, your book keeps getting worked on even if you are not at your writing desk and you are not the one working on it.
Because I was more or less living the message already, for several years I ignored the every day mandate and kept working the same way I always had. (And in point of fact, I know that many successful writers do not write literally every day, even though they all make writing a habit.) Then, when I was on sabbatical in 2009, I added a sixth day, Sunday, to my writing week. When I got off sabbatical I decided to hold on to that Sunday work session. And then last year, at the end of December, in what was a quick, unanticipated decision, I committed myself to going all the way. Just for one year--no matter where I was or what else I had to do--I would write creatively every single day. Even if that meant for only 5 minutes. Of course this begs the question as to what I mean by "writing creatively." I knew what I meant, so I didn't actively formulate guidelines--they were innate--but for the sake of this post I'll tell you what those innate guidelines were. If I composed original fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry or plays, that (of course) counted. If I revised or edited fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, or plays, that counted. If I wrote in a journal--and by this I mean the kind of descriptive, impressionistic, and exploratory journal one might keep on an overseas trip, as opposed to the "It's Tuesday, and I just had leftover fajitas for lunch" kind of journal--that counted. And that, friends, was pretty much it. Many other activites, even if they were related to my writing, did not count. Writing a blog post did not count. Commenting on other people's blog posts did not count. Writing queries to agents and publishers did not count. Conducting research for a story or novel, unless I carried this out during an active writing session, did not count. Writing letters or emails--no matter to whom and about what--did not count. Composing a letter-to-the-editor in response to something I read in a newspaper or magazine did not count. Writing critiques of my students' creative work or of a friend's creative work did not count. In fact, all the writing I do for my job as a university professor--grant proposals, committee reports, letters of recommendation, syllabi, assignment instructions--most definitely did not count! (Don't get me wrong; I belong the school that says all writing is creative--or has the potential to be--but for my New Year's resolution to accomplish what it was meant to accomplish, I had to stay true to my innately understood definition.)
So how did it turn out? Well, I'm happy to report, on this last day of 2012, that I did it! I wrote creatively every single day. And though I took several trips this year, the only one that truly challenged my resolution was my March trip to the madness of the AWP conference in Chicago. Part of the difficulty there was that I also blogged every day from the conference. There were a couple days at AWP when I logged my creative writing time only by composing observational haiku during down moments at the book fair table I was manning for Toad Suck Review. Those haiku may not be thunderous literature, but they kept my creative brain engaged. More importantly, I enjoyed doing them. During family trips--such as our east coast marathon in July and a Thanksgiving trip to Lowell, Arkansas--I kept to the resolution by simply doing what I always do: getting up before everybody else, starting a pot of coffee, and then writing. I can't know how much more I wrote because of my resolution--quantity really wasn't the point--but I did write a lot. I composed many many short stories--some very brief, some rather long; I composed a series of long poems (because I taught a course on the Long Poem during the spring semester), some of which I've arranged into a chapbook; I wrote one original play and adapted a short story I wrote into another; I wrote some creative nonfiction; I carried out substantial new edits on my story collection, Island Fog, a thematically-unified book in which all the stories are set in Nantucket Island, Massachusetts; I gathered together and edited other stories of mine for a different collection (most of those stories being set in the south) that I sent off to a contest just two weeks ago; I substantially edited and revised (once again) my Van Gogh novel as well as the (much shorter) novel that I wrote after it; and, as of last count this morning, I've written the first 215 pages of a semi-comic, wildly braided novel that I'm having a good time with--even if I'm not 100% sure where it's going. How much of all this writing will eventually appear in print I can't say. But I can say that because of the resolution, and because of sticking to it, I've felt more intimately engaged with my writing life this year than ever before. And that's precisely what the write-every-day mandate is about. I highly recommend it--at least for one year!
So what about next year? Let me get back to you about that. ; )
Reading report: I've been enjoying a couple books so far during this Christmas holiday. The first was sent to me by a booking agent for writers in the hopes that UCA would want to invite his client. I put it aside for weeks and then decided on a whim to read it during Winter Break. It's called Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness (2011) by Alexandra Fuller, the author of Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight (2003). The latter was her memoir about growing up in Africa, so with this latest volume Fuller decided to chronicle her mother's story of having grown up in Africa. It's a gem of a book, carefully researched and composed, so much so that she is able to convincingly narrate scenes that happened between her parents and others long before she was born. While it's an extremely personal and familial book, it also presents a superb picture of central Africa and the changes that occurred there between the 1940s and the 2000s. Her book reminds me that perhaps the only way to truthfully tell history is to tell the history of individual people who experience it. Anything else skirts dangerously close to propaganda. It's a fantastic, engaging read.
After finishing Fuller's volume, I started on Canada (2012) by Richard Ford. All I can say about this one is that I think it's the best Richard Ford novel I've ever read, which is saying a lot given how many he has written and their consistently high quality. The opening lines: "First I'll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later." If this sounds like an interesting premise for a novel--it is.