A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper. – E.B. White
This quote, from Day 38 of Barbara Abercrombie’s Year of Writing Dangerously book of meditations, accompanies a mini-essay on the archetypical concept of “ideal conditions,” basically making the point that there is no such thing. Real life will always be seeking to get between an artist and their work, particularly when (like me) your deadlines are flexible and you’re accountable in the end to no one but yourself.
For me, the last few days have been a particularly trying example of this. In a holdover from dissertation discipline, Mondays are my designated writing day, the day on which I schedule no appointments or errands; but yesterday, after a very chaotic two weeks for our family that ended in a rush of late-night Sunday paperwork, I spent half the morning picking up pieces of our orderly household that couldn’t wait any longer (since banks and creditors are not much inclined toward flexible deadlines). When I finally settled in with my chapter, I got far enough along to know that I had the makings of a good writing day ahead of me – and then had to spend half the afternoon running a similarly-urgent-but-ultimately-fruitless errand. I resolved that Tuesday would be a “reset,” and that to make that happen Husband and I would have a relaxing night and go to sleep early… and then, around 9 PM, a beloved local stray cat was hit by a car on our street and killed. So instead of unwinding, we spent the evening grieving with neighbors and digging a grave in the front yard. Now, on Tuesday morning, I’m sleep-deprived, frazzled, and cranky… and yet, more than anything, I want to be in a state of mind to work on my manuscript. So I’m writing this post as part of my reset effort, cleansing myself for writing time.
In introductory sociology, I tell my students about Emile Durkheim’s work on religion, and the distinction he draws between the sacred and the everyday. Sacred objects are set apart, treated with special reverence; sacred places often require their visitors to perform a small ritual when they enter (whether that’s genuflecting to the altar before you sit down in a Catholic church or removing your shoes at the door of a mosque). And sacred time is different from everyday time.
I don’t always have time for a long ritual before I start my morning writing, but there are certain things that are more often than not a part of my routine. I make a cup of tea; I see my cat settled on his window seat next to my writing desk; I read that day’s writing meditation from the Abercrombie book. And then I shut off my wireless adapter, I mark how much time I’m going to work that morning (one hour, or two, or three) and I sit down and see what happens.
My expectations for today aren’t very high. I don’t think I’ll write beautiful prose or solve sticky plot problems: I think it’s more likely I’ll fumble around, add a few words here or there, maybe review a scene I’m already happy with. But regardless, I’m going to do it for an hour and see what happens. Because I might break through and find the focus that I’m hoping for, the focus I had in my sights yesterday – and if that’s the case, it’ll make my day immeasurably better.
The more I do this, the more I realize that half of writing is prioritizing the time; most of the other half is showing up. So today, with all the crises that took my Monday away resolved, I’m going to take a deep breath and see if I can’t find my way back into my scene.
Reset achieved. Wish me luck.