2016 was a year full of extreme joy and deep grief. Through it all I was in a serious writing slump. I suppose it happens sometimes. It was not writers block, but more like an angst-ridden teen’s What for?
In September I looked at the coming of fall gray, the start of a new academic year, the state of the country and the world, the delays in the re-release of my books, the losses of loved ones, the fears related to memoir, and I understood this slump.
But maybe that wasn’t the point. Maybe dissecting and understanding didn’t matter. Perhaps I simply needed the discipline of any writer worth her or his salt to put my butt in the chair every single day, close out the world, and put pen to paper to tell a story.
On September 1, 2016, Seattle author and teacher, Priscilla Long, released Minding the Muse: A Handbook for Painters, Composers, Writers, and Other Creators. It’s a gem for experienced writers whose practice has, for one reason or another, gone sideways. The book has fourteen chapters, each ending with writing prompts. It was exactly what I needed to put my butt back in the chair.
I wrote in a flurry through September, responding to the bulk of the prompts provided. By the time my fall teaching quarter began, I was no longer working my way through Minding the Muse, but writing my memoir again. I owe a debt of gratitude for the direction Priscilla’s work provided. With her permission, I’ll post my responses to her probing questions over the next weeks. To be true to the process, I’ll share these unrevised, unedited raw responses, taken directly from my writer’s notebook. In some cases, I’ll add updates to these 5 or 6 month old writings.
Priscilla Long, Minding the Muse, p. 2
“Peruse these chapters in any order that strikes your fancy. I suggest beginning a notebook in which to reflect on your own art practice. On each subject, begin by describing what the reality is right now, since our efforts to move forward must necessarily proceed from a good comprehension of reality. Write for ten minutes on your present situation (‘My current situation with regard to – is …’). Do not stop. Do not worry about correctness or eloquence. Then write for five more minutes in response to the question: How can I make my practice in this area more effective by 5 percent?”
September 11, 2016
My current situation with regard to my writing practice is fairly nonexistent. I have written nothing new on the third memoir since early summer, and even my blog posts have dwindled. Still, I have read, edited and submitted all three novels and the first memoir to Bookadelphia for re-release. So that’s something. It’s work. It’s reading and editing, but it’s not creating, and I do miss creating. In all fairness, I suppose I needed a break from working so hard for so long, and then there was, still is, Erin and Elliott’s wedding with all the prep and house guests, etc. But I haven’t been doing morning pages, and now I’m looking at the clock because ten minutes feels like forever and my arm and hand are sore from lack of daily writing. I fear I have nothing more to say, that I’ve written all there is inside me. But I know that’s not true either. I’m a writer, but I’m not writing. I need discipline, and discipline went out the window this summer despite my early attempts at practice retirement. It’s so easy to let a day slip away, to write all of one day and do nothing the next. And I agree with Priscilla that daily practice is the key whether it’s fifteen minutes or four hours or anything in between. The DAILY is the key. I also know I need structure.
September 12, 2016
I don’t know how to measure 5% improvement, but I do know that I need to improve my practice and that the first step is by simply writing. I need to write daily and I need to find a schedule I can stick to whether I’m teaching full time or on break or traveling or whatever. I think that, no I know that what has worked in the past (and could work again!) is to do morning pages. Thirty minutes of writing every single morning first thing when I wake up. Coffee and pen and notebook. I also need to avoid that my morning writing become nothing more than a daily To Do list or a list of complaints about life. I want to write scenes or do character development for the next memoir or write blog posts.
February 12, 2017 Update
Fall quarter went well, winter break passed, now I’m in the depths of winter term. I get up most mornings at 6:00 to do a 30-minute timed write before leaving for campus. Fridays I type and rewrite. My current memoir project, The Ex-Mexican Wives Club, remains a challenge, but it’s coming along. I’m at 31,169 very rough words, and I feel confident I have a story to tell.