How to Choose a Future, Line by Line: A Work in Progress

Inspired by the painting that Wikipedia used yesterday on its homepage, on President Barack Obama’s last day.

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“Hope” George Frederic Watts, 1886

 

There have always been moments

Like this: the whole world a weeping

Woman, half-collapsed, up to her knees

In tears for our unborn futures.

 

There/like/woman/in: blah

Moments/weeping/knees/future: so-so

good enough start; carry on.

In 1886, my great-grandparents chose

 

(or turned?) (Look this up; give context;

History is personal and political:

The sweat of a single brow, the blood

Of thousands soaking a nation’s fields)

 

Since then, the vote and indoor plumbing:

Yes, all that. But also, a nuclear arsenal

In the small idle hands of a man

With neither conscience nor safeguards.

 

And so, this lyre–all strings but one long since

Broken, washed away in these salt waves,

The tears of my people, my tears–

And all the air above this musician

 

Awaiting the quiet note still to come perhaps

From this final trembling audacious

String and the transformation

That may yet follow its music.

NaNoWriMo: When Procrastination Hits, and by Procrastination I Mean Life

So since November started, I have graded 38 second drafts, 38 first drafts and in the process of 38 quizzes. Also at MIT we moved from one building to another, which entailed packing and unpacking and rearranging and trouble-shooting. There was a party on Saturday, because God I needed that, and then right back into more grading, worrying about this election and trying to remember to eat at intervals.

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So, yes, for those of you who sounded surprised when I started my NaNoWriMo novel on the Fourth of July: this is why.

NaNoWriMo: Let the Fun Begin

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So today is the official beginning of the classic National Novel Writing Month, when everybody and their aunt tries to write 50,000 words (roughly 175 manuscript pages) of a novel in 30 days. It’s not easy, but it is far from impossible. It requires writing about 1665 words per day, which is about 6.5 double-spaced pages, which is within the realm of possibility even on a busy day, and sometimes, especially on a busy day.

This means a few things.

  1. You must be obsessive about your story, thinking about it constantly. Easy.
  2. Every time you have at least five minutes free, you need to sit down and write something: a conversation, a description of a setting or a person, an outline of a scene. Harder, mostly for you.
  3. You will probably write during meals, in line at the grocery store, on the train, etc. Harder, mostly for other people.

If all that sounds insane to you, you’re probably not a writer. Don’t feel bad. Probably there are lots of people out there, conventionally normal people, who can survive not writing about invisible people.

Probably.

Social Media as a form of Constructive Procrastination

Social media is not the villain everyone claims it to be. Sometimes social media actually helps us get stuff done. I often have a Word doc open on one side of my computer and some social media site open on the other side. When my brain wanders, it has a place to go for a few minutes to rest and recuperate and do other things that also probably start with the letter R. If I am lonely, I can feel connected briefly. If I feel like what I say doesn’t matter, I can hit the little thumbs-up hand and Like all kinds of stuff.

I mean think about it. Facebook has cat videos (and goat, otter, dog and people videos, but we all know what really matters). My Facebook feed also has groups dedicated to my favorite actors, TV shows, movie franchises, writing and social justice, mostly in that order. You would think that such things would be Inspirational, Moving Me To Write Stuff. I mean, after all, putting up motivational posters in Pinterest helps me to get my sorry little butt to the gym, right?

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Of course, the gym is easy. You show up and lift things over and over again. Then you go lift other things over and over again. You don’t need to think, “Yes, sure, but WHY does this 25 lb. weight NEED to be lifted? What is it trying to ACHIEVE? What will be the CONSEQUENCES of my lifting it?”

Is there anybody here, maybe that lady on the elliptical machine or the guy jumping up and down, thinking, “WHY must she lift that? Why can’t she just LEAVE IT ALONE?”

And the chick who takes the laundry basket filled with used towels, she is probably thinking, “I am the PROTAGONIST, dammit, not that 25 lb. weight, which isn’t CHOOSING to be lifted, the way I am CHOOSING to launder the damn towels for the tenth time since Monday!”

And the trainer who is showing some guy the Proper Way to Do Squats, she glances across the gym floor and thinks, “Yes, but HOW WILL IT ALL END?” Or possibly, she is just wishing she had had that second cup of coffee.

I mean, you don’t actually have to PLOT your gym time. The weight might or might not be expecting to get a happy ending, but it’s not telling either way, so you can pretty much tell people, when you get to the end of your workout, that you killed it.

So social media must work, because, no, I haven’t worked on my novel today, but I did just manage to bang out a blogpost.

Writing is Like Driving, Y/N?

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So my friend Pamela was telling me how she tells her grad students that writing is like driving. You have the steering wheel and the gear shift, but then you also have traffic and rain and a spider coming down from your rearview mirror, and construction, and you have to get to work on time, and you have to manage all those things at once. Writing, she says, is like that: managing voice and audience and content and deadlines, and context and style and the totally random page count and All The Things, all at the same time.

I feel as though that “all at the same time” part doesn’t entirely work for me, maybe because I think about managing some of that stuff in one draft, and other tasks in other drafts.

But, at the very least, I am glad she didn’t say driving was like parallel parking, because apparently, in Boston, nobody gets taught the methodical way to parallel park and everybody just does it by guess and by God.

But maybe that’s what revision is like.

Verse Lengths

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For some reason this week I seem to keep writing poems with verses of either three or six lines (except for the bridge poem which took its form from its subject). I’ve been trying to figure out how I get my verse lengths. The modernist poet, Marianne Moore, played around with uneven, inconsistent verse lengths, probably for some terribly modernist break-the-boundaries reason. I just find they give me the structure I need to get from the beginning to the end. Looking back just on what I wrote last week, I suspect the answer is that I take the length of the first verse, in which I have my starting idea that has its own length, and then I apply that length to all my other ideas. Not sure how much sense that makes, but it seems to be working for me, so…?

Constructive Procrastination

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Recently one of my Gentle Readers commented on my post about writer’s block. She says, “When I procrastinate I don’t write. … When I am unsure what to write, I might troll the Internet (procrastinate), which always puts me onto tangents and then an hour or more will go by and BOOM! I haven’t written a thing. So for me procrastination causes a block.”

I would argue that procrastination doesn’t cause the block any more than a stuffy nose causes a cold. We procrastinate because we need something and the style of procrastination can tell you something about what it is you need to get in a more effective way so that you stop procrastinating and start writing. I would also argue that Procrastination Isn’t Bad any more than water is bad, even though water—hot, cold or in between—can kill you. And yes, you can quote me.

The Internet is an interesting place, full of information, pictures and people. When we look for information on the internet because we don’t know what to write, it is possible that we haven’t narrowed down the “what” yet. I should have asked our friend what kind of writing she does, but I know for myself the rabbit’s hole of story leading to story ad infinitum the Internet can be. This is one case where a kitchen timer is your friend. Actually, when it comes to procrastinating constructively, a kitchen timer is almost always your friend. Do the procrastination behavior for a predetermined amount of time, say twenty minutes (as Francesco Cirillo, the developer of the Pomodoro Technique* would say). Then do some writing, also for a predetermined amount of time. Alternate back and forth between writing and one or more other activities. Over the course of an afternoon, you can get a lot done.

The Internets pictures (and videos) and people also are temptations for writers in particular. If I am bored with my writing topic, watching a cat video or reading a web comic might wake my brain back up. Facebook in particular is helpful for writers because, let’s face it, writing is lonely. So give yourself the opportunity to “socialize” in the virtual environment of your choice for, you guessed it, a predetermined amount of time. Then get back to work.

Our friend also says, “It’s like walking the dog or playing with the cats (‘for their sake,’ but I’m really procrastinating), and again nothing gets done, except some exercise for me and the pets.” Hey, don’t knock the exercise for you and them. Exercise increases blood flow to the brain, oxygenated blood flow, which has got to improve the thinking. And socializing with your animal companions also helps allay the lonelies.

“With a real writer’s block, not caused by procrastinating—“

But again, I would argue that procrastinating is a self-defensive technique that we use in an attempt to fulfill needs that the writing can’t fulfill…

“—if a deadline looms or just blocked, I put my but in a chair and push through because it (deadline) must get done. When there is no deadline looming and I’m blocked, I do the time-tested technique of just writing for five minutes without lifting the pen (yes, on paper) and no censoring my thoughts. Sometimes it will show me what the problem is; other times it gives me ideas. Once in a while, I get both, which is wonderful, but rare.”

Free-writing! Woohoo! I have only met one person in twenty years of teaching who could not write for several minutes (I usually go for ten or twenty), and he was seriously ADHD. Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones (a book that I imagine has saved lives) relies heavily on timed free-writing to get stuff Out of Head and Onto Paper (or, for those of you young whippersnappers, on your screen). Don’t judge; just write. Eventually your brain gives up and gives you what you are asking it for. And the more you do it, generally, the easier/quicker the process goes.

Lastly, our friend says, “Sometimes I think my problem is thinking too much.”

Heaven forbid, girlfriend! Thinking? Too Much? How is that even a thing? We’re WRITERS fer cryin’ out loud. Thinking is what we DO. Day and night. Personally, I think about writing 24/7. Yes, my dreams are very strange.

Yelling “Theater!” in a Crowded Fire

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Writer’s block is a thing like when you sit down on the train and realize that you have just stepped (in your brand new shoes) into the sticky residue of someone’s spilled soda. And you think, well, heat melts sugar, right? So if only the curtains of my imagination were on fire, I could pull myself out of this urban transit tarpit and actually create something.

Writing in the Body: A Feminist Reminder

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Working at MIT, I meet a lot of people who seem to think they are brains with big Mickey Mouse gloves: the ideas go zip-zap straight from the synapses in the grey matter to tippetty-tap on the keyboard. This is, unfortunately, not the case. Ergonomics matter because we write in the body. If your body is uncomfortable, then your brain will be uncomfortable and distracted, and that will affect your writing. If your seat is too low or too high, or worse yet, if you are doing that laptop in your lap thing, then you are in a suboptimal position. You can sustain that for a little while, sure, the same as you can sign a form on someone else’s back, but that doesn’t mean you want to write a novel that way.

This probably sounds obvious if all you are looking at is biokinetics, the body working as a machine for productivity. If you treat a machine better, then you will probably get a better product, and possibly even a more consistent product. That is the capitalist, patriarchal way of looking at this subject. I prefer a more ecological, feminist way of looking at it.

Rather than thinking of writing as production for some kind of profit, let’s think about it as reproduction, pulling the seeds out of ourselves to let them bloom and flower in the world, to encourage other people to do the same. Perhaps this metaphor is on my mind because yesterday was Veteran’s Day and that reminded me of the phenomenal art installation constructed at the Tower of London last year to commemorate Britain’s entrance into World War I: Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red. Art doesn’t have to imitate other art to be inspired by it.

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More importantly for me as a feminist, the idea of writing in the body and from the body is a way to revise (literally, re-see) a problematic trope in Western culture, that (mental) discipline equals (physical) suffering and that this is potentially a good idea. St. Paul wrote about the “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor. 12:7-10), the pain that keeps us from getting above ourselves, the pain that keeps us from hubris, pride, equating ourselves with the gods or G-d.

This started with the Greeks and the Christians took it and ran with it. And while in certain cases, human pride is absolutely a major problem, particularly when it is coupled with anthropocentric economic policy and action, for a lot of people (especially members of marginalized communities) the real problem isn’t pride so much as shame. The history of overvaluing the mind and denying and devaluing the body is deeply entwined with the oppression of women, minorities, nonhuman animals and the Earth. So when we take care of ourselves while we write, when we treat our bodies with respect and gratitude despite whatever hellish deadlines we are up against, we are engaging in a feminist practice that we can take out into the world in other ways.

A Writer and Her Tools Are Not Soon Upgraded

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Having been born in the twentieth century, I will admit that I only ever used a pen-and-ink-on-parchment recreationally (and no, I did not inhale; as a rule, it is better not to). As a writer I have been fond of Zebra pens and colored felt tip Bic markers, although as I age, or rather, as my hands have been aging, I am being dragged kicking and screaming into the century of the fruitbat and am increasingly doing my first drafts on my iMac. Having said that, I will admit that my iMac is 7 1/2 years old, just six months younger than my cat, who has not yet started slowing down, freezing or losing files, although from time to time, he will knock them off my desk to test if gravity is still working.

Note: it is. Phew. Thanks, Musashi!

My computer, alas, is not so spry. Last night I dreamed that a friend reminded me that this weekend would be Massachusetts Tax-free Weekend, which means no tax on purchases of $2500 or less: perfect timing for Back To School folks to buy computers and still be able to afford, for example, Apple Care Protection. (And for those of you who have ever read comics.com while drinking your breakfast coffee, you know how useful that can be. Keyboards are less expensive than they used to be, but still.)

So yes, I am breaking down and getting a new computer before I am in the middle of finals and lose everything. Did that before. Don’t recommend it.

And then there are people even more clueless than me.