The Writer’s To-Do List

Screenshot 2015-02-11 11.41.51

Gosh, it’s been a long time since I’ve written. While all you back-East readers are getting clobbered by snow, here in California we’ve had a mix of mold-inspiring rain and gorgeous sunny days. It feels so much like spring that I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s been a little confused. Is it winter? Or spring? What’s going on here?

This time of year always feels so busy. I’m not sure why. The fall is busy, too, but with a kind of festive air: the start of a new year, soccer season, new friends, everything exciting and overwhelming. Then, the mad and fun rush of the holidays. By now, February, we’re well into the routine, which is both a blessing and a curse. L is happier at school and at aftercare, we’re onto indoor soccer, we never paused for reflection, and I’ve roared through the fall semester, over winter break, and have squarely landed in my spring teaching and writing routine. Or what passes for a routine.

I spent the month of January a little confused by what to work on. This is not a familiar problem to me, or at least, in the past if I had too many choices it might have felt exciting. But I spent much of January thinking to myself, I should really get back to that novel—once I finish this essay, write a poem, start another essay, revise my memoir, apply to that fellowship thingy, prepare for the San Francisco Writers Conference, and submit my work all over the place. Yowsah! I never thought I’d long so much to just have one project on my desk. But I’ve been bombarded with ideas and opportunities, and, feeling like I’m at a place in my career when I need to say yes to lots of things, I’ve kind of been going with the flow. So I’ve been making a lot of to-do lists.

I’m also at this point with my writing—specifically, with writing prose, since poetry never felt like this—where it feels possible to check things off a list. Some of the romance is gone, to be sure, but I also have this sense that if I write something like “revise ending of Will essay” on my to-do list that that’s, actually, an accomplishable goal. I can look ahead on a Monday and think, yes, I can realistically revise that short story and send it out by Friday (as opposed to years ago, when I might have revised for months, or never gotten to it, or decided to scrap it, or decided what to work on the morning I sat down to write). Is this making any sense? I used to think that artists and writers waited for inspiration, wrote things, had things happen. Lately, for me, it’s more about setting small goals and achieving them. It sounds so boring, when I write that here. But luckily, luckily, when I’m in it—high on too much caffeine, 45 minutes until I have to get L or leave for work, and I just want to write all day—it still feels like there’s a lot of romance, a lot of excitement. So much, in fact, that I sneak moments the rest of the day to reconnect with whatever I’m working on. I sneak onto the computer while L is playing with Legos. I postpone my grading to edit one more paragraph. I drive my family insane because I can’t put down my work at dinnertime. I fall asleep reworking the first line in my head.

So in a way, the to-do list keeps me in check, helps me focus and not get ahead of myself.

But I do long for a time when I won’t need one. In a few weeks—after I’ve gotten notes back from the book editor, and sent out the personal essay a few more times, and finished that poem—I really am going to sit down with that novel I started during NaNoWriMo. It will be the only thing on the list. No, really.

I’ll be at the San Francisco Writers Conference this coming weekend, FYI. Reading poetry on Friday night, moderating a panel and presenting on a panel on Saturday morning. Should be good. Maybe I’ll see some of you there.

On the subject of writing routines and just getting down to it:

“Kazuo Ishiuguro: How I Wrote The Remains of the Day in Four Weeks”

What Wisdom is This

“The dream of being a writer and the crazy price one has to pay for excellence are impossible to demonstrate or, really, even to fathom.” –John Lahr, reviewing the play “Seminar,” now playing in New York, in the November 28 issue of The New Yorker.

My last blog post created a bit of a stir. A friend reposted it on her Facebook wall, and all of a sudden people I didn’t know were reading my blog and commenting on it. This may be silly, but that gave me a thrill. Lately–what with a new blog, and some childcare, and a motivation towards getting out there that has been dormant for some time–I have been feeling, for the first time since I had L, public. Like I am a writer with a writing life, not just a woman squirreled away working on stuff. I made this Website and blog in part because I want to create a sort of grassroots presence for myself on the Web; I have a memoir to publish, after all.

So, anyway, there was this reposting on S’s Facebook page, and then there was a bit of a stir on my own Facebook page. First my friend BK made the point that conservatives “suck hairy elephant nutsacks” (oh boy) and then my mom very brashly said she’d never let a kid cry it out, whence another friend admitted she had in fact let her kid cry it out and then another friend came in on the side of respectful parenting and I sort of tried to smooth everything over, secretly thinking, Uh oh. Conflict.

And I very nearly rethought the whole thing. Because I don’t do conflict that well. It scares me. It worries me that my conservative friends will be really offended by a silly quip or that there will be an all-out war on my Facebook page (no, the smallness of that concern is not lost on me). I am the sort of person who is both deeply opinionated and scared to death that people won’t like her, so I run around trying to make everyone get along.

Over the weekend, deciding how to deal with this problem, I got to thinking about the desire to be a more public sort of writer, since it seems in this day that that is what is required of writers. Have a Website, the books admonish. Have a blog. No space for Emily Dickinsons here, I’m afraid. And then I had to admit to myself that with or without tools like Facebook and WordPress, I’ve kind of set myself up for conflict. My memoir is about the year I spent traveling with B, my now husband. I joke that it’s a “tell-all exposé” of our relationship but the joke is thin; it is. I can’t say what possessed me to write this book other than to say that I started out writing travel essays and quickly realized I had a very different story to tell. So I let it just pour out, and there you have it: how we met, the first time we had sex, the fights we had, the marriage proposal, all on paper. And I want desperately to have it published and widely read. Am I crazy? (Incidentally, what scares me most is my mom and dad reading about us eating hallucinogenic cactus in Peru.)

When you write something like that, you open yourself wide up. For conflict. For judgment. I have been in writing workshops where people said the character of Susie was snobbish, that she needed more gravitas; another found B totally unsympathetic. Another read Susie as an utter basket case by page 50; did I really want that, I was asked? Well, no–and yet, if you’re writing a memoir, you’re bound to tell the truth. And yes, Susie was a total basket case by page 50. After some of those moments of criticism I came home and had a really long, hard cry, and then I went back at it.

If I do get this book published, I know there will be a stir, however minor. And some people will love it, and some will say, what wisdom is this? Why should we care? I guess that’s all a part of the deal.

I just realized how long I have been wanting to get this off my chest.