By 5 a.m. it was confirmed that outdoor activities, such as driving to work, were out of the question for me. I sulked for about five minutes, then poured coffee and got on with completing the latest editing of Ramshackle Houses & Southern Parables to send back into the world.
Since embracing the fact that I want to be a writer (a poet, an essayist, a novelist …) I’ve devoured everything at hand written by writers about writing. And still, deliberately organized process fascinates me. Eludes me. Stumps me. While editing my pet project (again) this morning, and indulging in way too much coffee, I got distracted by the realization that I’m a mess. I approach writing the same way I approach everything else—swinging on the latest mood swing.
Elizabeth Gilbert and Natalie Goldberg, to name two of my favorites, aren’t really as strict as some others concerning the methods followed in completing a project. However, they both describe a certain dedication, a recognition of the necessity for daily work. Butt in the seat, regularly. That’s how they both say insight, inspiration, and good work finds them—when their butts are in the seat, and pens are in their hands. Many other writers go into great detail about putting together the project with the help of outlines, plotting out the format long before sitting down to tackle actually filling in the pages.
Their dedication to work structure and method are astounding. I can’t get a handle on it. I’m jealous. Similarly, I have several relatives and friends who insist on cleaning their kitchens immediately after dinner, and making their beds every single morning before leaving for work. They do it automatically years after embracing it’s the thing to do, the thing that makes the rest of their day go smoothly. I remain puzzled by the faithful frequency of these accomplishments. I’ve tried, promise. I’ve even written out schedules and set reminders on my phone. Pfft.
Truth is, I crave structure. I recognize that it would greatly improve my life. But.
Ramshackle was my very first finished project. I decided I wanted to be a writer in 2009, the original version of this poetry collection was submitted to a contest in 2015. Total honesty? The only reason that collection got completed and submitted was because I got laid off from work and new I’d be unemployed for several months, so I had a talk with myself and said get over yourself, set a schedule, get it done in thirty days. And I did. The collection was shortlisted for a book award two months later.
It was a desperate situation. I got the work done, then rested on my laurels for two years before trying to send it out again. Another desperate situation arose. This time, a panic attack after realizing I’m an idiot. Back in 2015, with at least eight hours a day free to work on nothing but the poetry, was the first and last glint of structure I’ve experienced. I showered, walked the dog, ate breakfast, and put my butt in the seat every day by 8 a.m. Three weeks in, I looked like a demented hoarder half buried in printer paper and cigarette ashes. The structure kind of got set fire to by the last days of that month, and I was nutcase.
That version was fifty pages. The second, forty-eight, with a new title. The third is down to thirty pages. Between the 2017 and 2018 versions, I’ve spent seven months just THINKING about the changes. Refusing to allow myself to pen anything to paper. When not thinking it out, I would read pieces aloud to see which flowed into the next, and would mentally cut what didn’t work. I set myself a deadline for January 15th, and HEY! one of the mags I had in mind sent out notice their deadline was extended until the 16th. (I’m thinking that snow day turned out to be just for me.)
Anyway. Once I sat down with my coffee this morning, first thing apparent was two bad decisions during my thinking time. Over the weekend I’d typed out the table of contents and sipping my first cup of coffee I could clearly see three pieces were all wrong. I made the changes, polished up the title page, and OMG I almost forgot to edit the table of contents! Imagine if I hadn’t noticed that before submitting. How embarrassing!
Five cups in, I had the chapbook completed, read through two more times, then raced over to Submittable. An hour later, I had three individual pieces in another document to send to another lit mag. All in all, I did about six hours work between Saturday and today. Maybe a record for me, if you don’t count the seven months of thinking.
Is that the worst process you’ve ever heard of or what?
Will I ever get better? More productive? Drink less coffee? I don’t know. Despite this being my quickest and possibly finest finished project (the single project that is my total life’s work thus far), it was stressful. Messy.
I have another chapbook in the works, fifteen poems that need to be twenty-five poems. Cento, actually. And I know I’m in trouble because I keep getting distracted from finishing it. The idea for this particular project has been stewing around my life for three years now. THREE YEARS.