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How do we meet our writing goals and help our students meet writing goals in the midst of other demands?


My favorite recent book on this topic is Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. It’s a portable encyclopedia of the daily schedules of artists, psychologists, theologians, and authors.


Toni Morrison (single mother of two with a full time job as an editor at Random House) explains that “it does seem hectic,” but she doesn’t do “anything else.” She avoids cocktail parties and evening events because that is when she works. And, “When I sit down to write I never brood….. I can’t afford it.”  She makes it clear that there’s really not likely going to be, for most of us, a regular time to write. She grabbed weekends, evenings, predawn time.


Haruki Murakami wakes at 4 am and writes until 9 am or 10 am. He also turns down invitations.


What I notice, reading Currey’s charming, delicious compendium, is that creating a writing life is actually less about a cushy life filled with luxurious writing hours and more about saying no to almost everything else.


And, reading the lives of artists while thinking about students as our semesters get underway, I see that it’s more than a bit challenging to be 20 years old and newly free in in the world, and then, if one would like to become a writer, tasked with saying no to all of your friends, parties, weekend getaways, football games, laying out in the sun.


I asked three of my colleagues, graduate students in the MFA program at the University of South Florida, to address the question: how do you get your writing done while teaching? Annalise Mabe said she writes best when she has a deadline for class. Carmella Guiol recently got rid of the internet at home, and for her, hours and hours of writing time opened up.  Chelsea Dingman, prolific writer and mother of two boys, gets up monstrously early, and writes in any spare hour during the day.


These three writers get their creative work done by saying no to a lot and they can do that because they love the work and they have been rewarded by long hours of practice with visible, measurable proof of improvement. 


Can we help our students experience more deeply how rewarding practice is? (The recent film Seymour provides a terrific discussion of the delicious rewards of pure practice.) I’m not sure. I know when they are required to spend more time on a piece (writing a sonnet, for example), they learn more as writers, produce better work, and they are often surprised at the correlation between time spent on writing and the success of the piece.


This semester, I’m working on creating assignment sequences that are meaningful and challenging. I’m trying to do a better job of explaining to my students why we’re doing this work, and what they’ll be able to do at the end of the semester, and showing them, along the way, exactly what is happening in terms of skill development and knowledge acquisition. 


I’m modeling a working writing life for them by sharing my triumphs and failures I’ve met my new year’s writing goals four days out of 24 so far this year, but at least I’m aware of what I want and where I am.

A couple of years ago, I taught a May Term class called Survey of English Poetry, 1500-1700. During May Term, my students kept “commonplace books,” which turned out to be a surprisingly fun, and for some students, a very meaningful, exercise. In the Renaissance—and actually up through the nineteenth century—many people in Western culture used commonplace books as repositories of quotes, recipes, meditations, Biblical passages, illustrations, observations on nature and the passage of time, and poems. It was a way for people to represent themselves in relation to the inherited knowledge of the culture.  To emulate this practice requires a Renaissance habit of mind—a mind that is continually culling information from the world, and above all, experimenting with a “writerly” self.


On the first day of class, I distributed small 3 ½ x5 ½” Moleskine blank notebooks.  Each day of May Term, I encouraged students to write excerpts of their favorite poems, horoscopes, lyrics from their favorite songs, descriptions of what they were learning in other disciplines, or any other meditations that came to mind. At first, I worried that they wouldn’t be interested in writing longhand, especially when they could just enter thoughts into Evernote on their smart phones. Remarkably, though, they were drawn to the experience, perhaps precisely because so much of what they do is relegated to screens.


I was astonished by the results of this project. If you click on this link, you’ll see some examples of the most interesting commonplace books. If you want to learn a bit more about commonplace books and how they’ve been used over time, check out this page.