Archive for the ‘writing goals’ Category

Pluck and luck

Aaaand yesterday I came down with a cold.  Not a terrible one–a stuffy nose and intermittently clogged ears are the main symptoms, and I’m hoping it doesn’t morph into other versions, as colds sometimes do.  Last night I even had one clear nostril at all times, for which I was grateful.

It came on a few hours after the yoga class–which was otherwise a friendly introduction to yoga, but I did wonder if I’d somehow redistributed my fluids with all those unfamiliar poses in order to wind up with a headful of snot!

I also hope that I didn’t manage to give the cold to my mom, whom I drove over to Stubb’s parents’ house for a little condolence visit.  Or to Stubb’s parents.

Today I rejiggered my to-do list, uploaded some financial aid forms for the Snork Maiden’s music camp (not sure we’ll get FA, but worth applying), handled a bit of SA correspondence, ordered new glasses, and spent far too much time on Facebook.

I also realized that while I’ve been pleased about staying connected with my current book project via a series of Seinfeld chains, I have been moving among poem drafts much more than I did while writing my first two book manuscripts.  This is partly a function of the way this book is meant to work: it has more of a narrative arc (which is its own problem) and so I am sketching in pieces of it and thinking a little less in terms of each poem as a completed artifact.  However–I am generally all about the poem as a completed artifact on its own, and this chain of blurry drafts is disconcerting to me.

Maybe I need to be disconcerted.  Maybe I need to think about whether this is all one long poem–that was one thing that interested me very much about reading Hirsch’s Gabriel, although I think I understand how that poem’s form serves that poem in a way that’s very particular to its subject matter and speaker.

I was thinking, though, that a good writing goal for the rest of the break would be to select a little group of poems that work well together, that could eventually be submitted together and make sense as a group apart from the longer narrative arc of the book, and pull these through to what I will call, oxymoronically, “finished drafts”–not finished poems but a group of drafts that have plausible beginnings, middles, and ends, even if they will still go through more drafts afterwards.

So I think that’s what I will do.  Six days left of break = six finished drafts.  Let’s see what happens.

The hours

Oh, Sunday night.  This isn’t an especially angsty one, but it’s still not my favorite time.  Nice, though, to reflect that it’s been a good weekend, with some fun, some down time, and some good work.

I mentioned that I brought my second book manuscript to the writers’ group earlier this month and got a very helpful response.  I have managed to carve out some time to revise–again: I completed a draft in 2011, and at various times I’ve thought I was finished; I sent it out many times in 2013, and just a few times in 2014, feeling that something needed my attention.  Now I have the feeling that this thing really is done.  At least I’m ready to get serious about sending it out again.  This weekend I picked four of the upcoming book contest deadlines and submitted it.  I also did some planning for upcoming contests and open reading periods.

This week, I’m going to get two batches of unpublished poems back out there.  Not every unpublished poem in the book works on its own, but there are some that should have magazine publication before the book comes out.  And this should be the year that the book gets taken!

And then I’m going to find some time–maybe next weekend–to look at the handful of finished poems and sheaves of drafts I have for the next book.

Small wonder

Did I tell you that I sustained my Morning Pages practice for the whole month of January?  I missed two days when things got busy and I just literally did not think about them–one was the day before I took a professional day off to contribute to a project at BAC, so I was doing all my usual stuff plus getting materials ready for the sub and getting myself ready for the project, and the other was the day itself, when I left the house before six and didn’t think about them until I was getting coffee at a supermarket Starbucks near BAC. Otherwise, though, I’ve written them every day, sometimes to discernible good effect, sometimes not–but I like doing them, that stretching of the muscles, the time to muse and ruminate.  I believe that I go into work with a clearer mind because of them.

For February, I am continuing to write Morning Pages, but I’ve added a second goal–a draft of a new poem every Wednesday.  So far, so good–today was Wednesday and I had the draft by the end of Tuesday.

The next seven school days will be pretty busy with teaching and special events, including two candidate visits next week, the first round of honors and AP approvals, wrapping up my part of the teacher evaluation cycle, speaking at a school event, and a couple of deadlines for things I want to apply for (oh, and buying a plane ticket for AWP).  Fortunately, the weekend should not be too crazed–I think the only things planned are a haircut for the Snork Maiden and a birthday dinner for our nephew Snufkin.  And the weekend after that is Presidents’ Day, which is a) a three-day weekend we will all surely welcome and b) the day before sixth anniversary of my arrival at SA.


One article I’m glad I read, one nice conversation, and one slap-myself-upside-the-head thing:

1. “Setting Creative Goals for the New Year?  Let Fear Be Your Guide” from Gwarlingo:  you never know if someone’s inspirational Facebook link will be just what you needed to hear or a load of happy horseshit, as Stubb would say.  In this case it was the former.  The reminder that we don’t, in fact, have unlimited time is the kind of thing that sounds authentic to a worrywart like me.  And I liked the affirmation that daily practice (i.e. the Morning Pages) makes a place for good things to happen.

2. The Mandarin teacher at school–let’s call her Teacher Z, since that’s what the kids call her (well, Z Lao Shi, that is)–is about ten years older than I am.  She was a teenager at the end of the Cultural Revolution and took the university entrance exams along with the rest of the ten-year backlog of students who didn’t get to apply to university.  (She got in, one of less than 5% of all applicants.  So did her older sister.)  She eventually emigrated to the U.S., married an American, and had two daughters.  The older one taught for a year at SA before entering dental school nearby, and the younger one is about to graduate from our flagship state university and go to an engineering job in another state with a major multinational company.  I know the older one slightly as a colleague and I taught the younger one in my first AP Lang class at SA–a delightful, hardworking, lucid writer.  Teacher Z has told me that the employer was very impressed by Younger Daughter’s excellent writing when she worked for them in a summer internship–she politely gives me credit for this, although I doubt I deserve much, if any.

Teacher Z and I have gotten friendly since the move to the new building–her room is right across from the one I shared with Romola–and this year she is teaching the Snork Maiden (there’s a different teacher for middle school).  One recurring topic is the impending departure of her younger daughter–Teacher Z is grappling with the idea that Younger Daughter won’t be moving home after college and might, in fact, not return to our region at all, or not for a while.  We’ve noted that a typical American response is “Great!  She’ll have a terrific job and get to see other parts of the country!” while a typical Chinese response is “The job is great, but she should get a job near her parents!”  Today she was asking me about our winter break travels, and I was saying how much easier and fun it is traveling with a young teen (as opposed to a baby–Lucinda, who has been back for about two and a half months from maternity leave, had just left the room).  Teacher Z remarked that this age is about when she stopped leading her daughters through the airport and found herself scrambling after them instead.

And then she said, wistfully, “You are at the best time, right now.”  And I totally got it.

3. I got an email from a student whose thesis I supervised a couple of years ago.  He is in Austin, working on yet another master’s degree.  He thinks he might like to teach.  Could I write him a recommendation?  ACK.  It never ends.  (I meant to upload those other college recs today, but didn’t get around to it.  Had quite a productive day, though–graded a batch of AP papers, commented on a manuscript, and prepped a lecture-style class.  Productive enough, in fact, that I don’t think I need to force myself to stay at this desk and knock any more things off my list.  I’ll probably wake up too early anyway.  Yawn.)



Horseradish: bitter truths you can’t avoid

Wow, this post took kind of a grim turn, didn’t it?  I wonder why the way in which I can most immediately perceive that I will continue to change is my response to sad things?  Maybe it’s because I look at my parents and in-laws and older friends and I see more and more losses in their lives, even though of course good things continue to happen, too, and the joy they take in ordinary pleasures and grandchild stuff is also different from the joys they experienced when they were young.  My housebound relative has some dementia, but even before that set in, I was struck by her considerable ability to be fairly contented within a pretty circumscribed and limited life. On the way to see her, I stopped at Trader Joe’s for some snacks to leave with her, and as always, she was able to enjoy the treats and to urge me to take some of the chocolate-covered almonds with me when I went.  She used to read a lot, and I always thought of that as a big part of her ability to be contented, but now she really can’t read and she doesn’t seem to mind too much, most of the time. I can’t conceive of a time when I won’t be able to read and won’t mind–but if it can happen to this lady, it can probably happen to me.

Well.  That wasn’t exactly a turn away from the grim!

What I was going to set out to write was about the ways in which I would like to change in the next ten years, as proposed by Shawn Smith in the link in that post.  I am avoiding it a little bit because I feel as though I’m always using this space to talk about what I’d like to do and then not doing it, most especially in terms of writing.  I keep saying I want to push writing more toward the center of my life, and I keep making efforts in that direction, and then the centripetal force of life keeps pushing it out, out, and away…

I gave NaNoWriMo a go this year, and my school-year and school-break and summervacation posts are often about how to find more time for writing and not to let it get crowded out by the rest of life.  And when I look back over the last few years, I think that maybe I haven’t done so badly in terms of keeping writing somewhere in the mix of my life.  I did finish my second book manuscript, started a third, continued to publish (at a trickle, yes, but in some excellent venues).  It’s disappointing that 2013 was not, in fact, the year that my second manuscript got accepted, but in striving after that goal, a lot got done.  It was a finalist for a contest and garnered a couple of very encouraging notes from editors.  So I suppose I ought to reframe my comment about how I use the space: maybe I use it to coach and cajole and remind myself so that I do keep pushing writing back to the center.

Anyway, in ten years I will be more of the writer I’m becoming, whatever that means; as my life unfolds, my writing will keep unfolding along with it.  I will write seriously, as I have for the last twenty-five years.  I will have continued to publish.  I will develop new obsessions as a writer, and I’ll find new work in the old obsessions, too.

And I’ll keep trying new practices to help me find my way to the time and imaginative space I need, whether that’s trying NaNoWriMo, or writing my goals here, or joining an online group (the one at Dame Eleanor‘s helped me find my way toward the smallest useful unit of time for me, which seems to be 12 minutes) or working with a friend; time goals or word goals; going away or staying at home.  And I won’t be embarrassed when any of these is less than a total success!  (The success being doing one’s work, of course.)

The first thing I’m trying this year is something I’ve heard about from others: the practice of writing Morning Pages, from Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way.  The link explains it pretty well, although 21 minutes, rather than 15, seems to be what it takes me to do.

Lesson plans

So what did I learn from doing almost half of NaNoWriMo?  (My word count on November 30 was 22,230 words, almost all of that written before November 20.)

Well, let’s review.  I said (here and here)  that what I wanted was:

  1. to be thinking about writing all the time
  2. to spend more time writing
  3. to wrench a big chunk of time back from a) work and b) aimless Net surfing
  4. to write to understand something I didn’t really understand
  5. to write without self-censoring
  6. to be able to read a messy novel draft written by me

Those things have been great.  So what I learned is mostly that I want to, and can, do more of them.  Except for #6, because I really am not a novelist.

Here are the big takeaways:

  1. If I can write 1500-1800 words of messy fiction most evenings without really missing the time too much, I can make better use of the evening hours than I usually do when I’m just sitting and staring at the computer.  I have tended to dismiss that time as low-focus time, time to recover from the day, but apparently I can focus some–I can produce instead of being a passive receptor.  I have also tended to think it is not good time for writing poetry, but I might be wrong about that.  Perhaps I should think of it as good time for writing bad drafts–and bad drafts have always been an integral part of my process.  It is also possible that this time could be used well for other low-focus work, such as small decluttering projects.  Anyway, I’m not saying I’m never going to sit and surf in the evenings, but I’m going to look at the evening hours as time to do something meaningful, even if some nights it’s watching a TV episode with the Snork Maiden, some nights it’s cleaning off a shelf, and some nights it’s working on a poem.  I like the way I’ve been forced to examine the default of going on the computer–I can see it’s also been pushing out other forms of recreation, like knitting and reading novels.
  2. Measurements, goals, and accountability are still very helpful for me.  Having that word count to shoot for, having a pal (PymFan, who also did a lot of NaNoing!) to check in with, having an overall goal and crawling toward it in increments–I definitely respond to all of these things.

I did surf and read some during NaNo, just not quite as much as usual, and one of the things I read was an “as told to” with Nicholson Baker in Salon:

But the thing that I found about writing is it’s wonderfully wasteful and that’s part of the usefulness of it. If you write every day, you’re going to write a lot of things that aren’t terribly good, but you’re going to have given things a chance to have their moments of sprouting. After hearing something, you’ll notice something and you’ll write three lines about that and then you’ll let it molder and you’ll forget it. The next time you return to that, you’re already at take one, and take two can expand on that and so even though it’s wasteful, because I write, you know, thousands of pages of stuff that doesn’t ever see the light, it helps me think and it helps me figure out what I actually do want to say in public.

So as the days grow shorter, and the school year accelerates madly toward winter break (which happens in three weeks!), I’m simply going to set myself the task, for December, of using those evening hours mindfully, and of keeping a record of how I use them.  I do have various deadlines this month, and it’s not a good time to plunge into a NaNo-style big goal or project, so my first step is just to make small changes, and observe.

On Monday, for example, the Snork Maiden and I won’t get home until around 7, after her sax lesson.  I’ll want to go online and check my email and Facebook, but maybe first I’ll draft a bad poem, and maybe afterwards I’ll clear off one small shelf.  And whatever I do, I’ll write it down.

Substitute groundhog

Well, it’s been about a week since my teaching workload ratcheted down, and I am here to tell you that it feels good.  Lucinda seems to be managing really well; I already knew she was a highly organized person and a good time manager, and I’m really impressed by her attitude about coming back to work.  It does suck, honestly, that she has to leave her five-month-old baby in day care even though she doesn’t want to.  But I can’t do anything practical about that except help to smooth her path at work.

Both she and Viola came in a little late today so that they could deal with different child-related things, so I covered Lucinda’s homeroom and the first twenty minutes of one of Viola’s junior classes, both of which were a pleasure to do because I am now teaching only three classes and I still had time to write an assignment sheet, prepare to meet with Sebastian, eat breakfast, meet with Sebastian, teach two classes, and have a meeting with one of the Middle School teachers in advance of observing his class next week, all without feeling hysterically pressed (although I did make the mistake of not going to the bathroom between one of the meetings and the class, and had to scoot out to pee while the students were watching the “Get thee to a nunnery” scene in Hamlet).

I’m keeping up with NaNoWriMo and still enjoying the process greatly, although more and more I feel that no one can ever read this, ever.

And I heard that my second-book manuscript was a finalist for a contest, which was a cheerful thing to hear.  I had forgotten about this contest, or at least decided that I probably didn’t win it (and I just looked at my records and I submitted the ms. in March, so of course I assumed I didn’t win it).  That reminded me to saddle up and get the thing out to a couple more competitions this month.

And I did some work for my online MFA students and wrote a long email about the difficulties I’ve been having with the online course to the dean and program head, and they responded in a very supportive way, so I’m feeling like less of a terrible loser about all that, and I’m planning to get out another set of work to the students tomorrow.  Still, though, I don’t think this course is a good use of my time.  I’m giving the students high-quality feedback, but the pay is low, and the pull it exerts on my attention is too strong.

There are so many things I’d like to blog about, including but not limited to the observation process, teaching seniors, and reading the comments on the Snork Maiden’s report card, but those things will have to wait.  I have about an hour and a half before bed, and the remaining 900 words on today’s NaNo goal aren’t going to write themselves (nor will this sinkful of dishes wash itself, but that can wait until tomorrow without too severe an effect on my sense of momentum).

The coast of utopia

Gamma is back!  And I am renaming her Lucinda.  The beginning of this week was so busy that I barely noticed I had dropped two classes, but it’s definitely starting to sink in now.  I feel as though I’m almost caught up on many things.

So, of course, it seems like a great time to do NaNoWriMo.

Seriously.  I’ve never really been tempted before, but what really attracts me this time is the immersion of it–the way I’ll be thinking about my novel-draft-in-progress all the time.  This is something I find very hard to sustain with poems during the school year, but the enormous expectation of 1667 words per day will keep my attention.

I don’t even WANT to write a novel.  What I want is to be thinking about writing all the time.

And I want to wrench a big chunk of my time back from a) work, and b) surfing the Internet.  I do a lot of reading on the Internet at night–fun things and long things like Paris Review interviews and features from the archives of The New Yorker–but an awful lot of time disappears down that rabbit hole.  I think I can afford the time it will take to write a messy novel draft.

Frankly, I’d also like to read a messy novel draft written by me.  Who knows what story I might have to tell!

I kind of know what the story is, actually.  No outline; I’m just floundering forward.  The thing is to keep floundering.

Baker’s dozen

So I just got an auto-emailed request for a recommendation for a former NLNRU student who’s applying to film schools.  This shouldn’t be a big deal, because last year I wrote her a very detailed rec that I can cannibalize, but it’s reminded me that I also have thirteen requests, so far, for college recs from SA students.  And that the college counselors have requested that we complete these recs by mid-October–which means about three weeks from now.  Oh dear.  Not quite sure how to fit those in, but I’m going to set a goal of writing four of them this week.  (Gulp.)

I have a couple other goals for this week, too–

  • Work on my second book manuscript.  I’ve decided it needs some reorganizing, and there are two end-of-September prize deadlines I’m determined to make.
  • Make two more brief visits to English classes, thereby continuing the observation process even though I don’t have time to start the formal evaluations yet.

There’s also a long to-do list, but pretty much everything on it has to get done this week, while these goals are things I might put off in favor of the more pressing items on the list.

Monday interim goals, then: 1) One college rec. 2) Half an hour on the second book ms.  3) A ten- or fifteen-minute visit to someone’s class.

Along with the usual stuff: teaching, grading, some work on the online class, taking the Snork Maiden to pick up her new glasses and to her saxophone lesson.  (I don’t think I updated on her jazz audition, by the way.  Her band teacher let her into the jazz ensemble as a clarinet player, but says she’s not ready to play sax in jazz yet.)

Future shock, part 2

So the other part of that post is that I am also thinking about what I want my life to be like as the Snork Maiden ventures farther out into the world.  This summer, I’ll drop her off at her two-week program and, most likely, make my way (with one or two stops with friends) to where Stubb will be wrapping up his out-of-town gig.  We’re planning to drive home from there and have a few days on our own, reminiscent of a long drive we did twenty-something summers ago.

One thing I might like to do, eventually, is sell the house.  I like our neighborhood and our location, but I’m not crazy about home ownership.  I think Stubb feels more or less the same.  On the other hand, it is a good size for us, and won’t feel too big for just the two of us.  We are currently getting dicked around (I am starting to realize) while refinancing, and I hate owing a big bank a huge amount of money.

think I’ll want to keep working at SA, although my chair at NLNRU has said several times that I should come back when the Snork Maiden graduates, and get the tuition break if she goes to NLNRU or to another school in its tuition-exchange consortium.  It’s certainly another reason (besides liking a lot of the people) to stay in friendly contact with the program there.

I’m going to be mentoring a couple of students in a low-residency MFA program this fall, just working with them one-on-one.  I’ll be curious to see whether I like that or not, and whether that turns out to be part of my work over the next few years.

Today I got a very nice email from an editor I sent the ms. to back in January (here).  It’s a big press, one I didn’t expect to pick up the book, and they didn’t–but it was a helpful letter nonetheless, and it also expressed a continuing interest in the work that I think is real.

The email helped me see, actually, something that is out of place about the book, something I might actually be able to fix.  I will be thinking about it this summer.

Because in the shorter term, no matter what else happens, I really do want this book out in the world!