This post first appeared on the blog on Jan 29, 2016.
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.
Heather Sellers (PhD, Florida State University) is professor of English at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Florida, where she teaches graduate and undergraduate creative writing in children's literature, poetry, and non-fiction. She won the student-chosen professor of the year award at Hope College, where she gave the commencement address. Her textbook for the multi-genre course is The Practice of Creative Writing, which will appear next year in its third edition. A recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship for Fiction, she's published two books on creating an inspiring and happy writing life, Page after Page and Chapter after Chapter, as well as a children's book, two books of poetry and three chapbooks, along with Georgia Under Water, a collection of short stories. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, The London Daily Telegraph, Reader’s Digest, Good Housekeeping, O,the Oprah Magazine, and The Sun, as well as Prairie Schooner and Alaska Quarterly Review. She's currently at work on a new manuscript of poems and a novel for younger readers, set in Florida, her home state. She’s an avid cyclist and kayaker.
This post first appeared on the blog on September 12, 2011.
My favorite part of that first class session, during which my introductory creative writing students watch me with equal parts eagerness and trepidation, is when I tell them, “Regardless of your major or why you signed up for this course, for the next fifteen weeks, please consider yourself a writer.”
I tell them this because for the next fifteen weeks they will be writers, in that they’ll be doing what writers do: writing, trying stuff out, getting stuck, staying stuck, getting hit with inspiration, revising, revising some more, hating what they’ve written, loving what they’ve written, being completely unsure what to think about what they’ve written.
Many of them will also be doing something else that all writers do at least some of the time: coming up with reasons to put off writing.
One key difference between less experienced writers and more experienced writers is that the latter know full well the sin they’re committing. Newer writers, however, often harbor the comforting belief that their writing comes out better if put off and done last-minute. Even advanced undergraduates will sometimes enter class claiming that their best work gets done the night before an assignment is due. Adrenaline, etc.
A goal for me each semester, particularly in introductory classes, is to get across the notion that writing takes time. And while time alone won’t necessarily yield good writing, time is nonetheless a prerequisite. In practice, this means giving out assignments early and often that get pen to paper (or fingers to keys). It’s actually a hard lesson to communicate, this possibility that starting early and writing every day might just result in more successful stories and poems. I’ve tried everything from “confession sessions” to handing out snapshots of Richard Simmons—the ultimate motivator—to hang up in their workspaces. I’ve been developing a new idea involving dinosaurs, flashlights, and the Harlem Globetrotters, but I don’t want to give away too much.
Truthfully, my most successful approach has been the most straightforward: I try to keep the discussion alive throughout the term. And every semester, at least a few “last-minute” writers will make a breakthrough in their work simply because they gave it more time—though I would love to hear other instructors’ strategies.