A friend once told me that if you really want to do something, first write down all the good excuses you’ve got not to do it. When it comes to writing, I’ve got a few:
All the words have been said.
I don’t have the right notebook or pen.
People will think I’m a fake.
People who didn’t like me in high school will say bad things about me.
I can’t teach AND write.
My kids keep interrupting me.
It’s too late. I should be further along by now.
I’ll wait until my kids are older.
I’m not that good.
I just got a text.
I should check my email.
I’ll look at Facebook instead.
I’m way behind on laundry.
I should grade papers or revise tomorrow’s lesson or brainstorm a new unit.
I have nothing new to say.
All the other authors said it better.
I’ll offend someone.
I’m not spiritual enough.
I don’t have time.
This week I said goodbye to another group of college writing students. And the last words I left them with were: “Find that thing — that thing you don’t think you have time for or that thing you loved but stopped doing when you were 11 or 12 because you didn’t think you were good enough, and make time for it.”
As usual, I was mostly saying words I need to hear. Giving reminders and passing along wisdom that good teachers and friends have shared with me.
Maybe a couple of them were reminded that they do actually enjoy writing — but for others, writing is not the thing, but it’s something else: dancing, drawing, gardening, baking, yoga, reading — whatever. I tell them, just spend a little time on it, and maybe even release the temptation to think you need to be so good at it all the time. I read aloud this piece by Anne Lamott in which she urges us to find “half an hour of quiet time for yourself…unless you’re incredibly busy and stressed, in which case you need an hour.” And then the students walk out the door to study for exams, and I head home to a house full of people who call me Mom, and the hard work begins — we have to figure it out. We have to fight for it.
Excuses are, of course, easiest when I’m the busiest. It’s so much easier to blame my lack of writing on this family I have (who insist on eating several times a day), the boys’ baseball schedules (three boys in baseball is no joke, just saying), the papers I need to grade (collected 143 yesterday + 17 ten-page research projects on Thursday), and the laundry I never put away (thank goodness for the door on that laundry room.) Oh, and that awful habit I’ve gotten into of checking all things on my phone — email, Instagram, Facebook — one last time before I go to bed.
But the reality is that I make time for what matters — and too often I find myself using my busyness as a not-so-clever form of procrastination. “I would, but first I need to…”
Just because something is good for me doesn’t mean it’s easy for me.
And this is especially true for writing. Red Smith said, “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”
The month of May is a perfect storm for calendars — little league, end-of-the-school-year this and that, deadlines, and, and…but if not now, when? There will always be calendars, always be excuses.
So, I’m committing — on this Saturday morning when I tiptoed out of bed to steal an hour before the rest of my house wakes up — to taking the advice I offered my students about fighting for time for the things that matter in the months ahead. I know summer is coming and the pace of our household will slow a bit, but other things will be there too, including excuses.
One of my favorite parts of teaching is writing with my students. In my Hope College class this fall, we did a series of writing experiments — assignments more focused on exploration than perfection. One of my favorites was an imitation of a piece called “Thankful” by Amy Krouse Rosenthal. The piece is published in Rosenthal’s Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life — a ecletic memoir told through a series of Encyclopedia-style entries.
In honor of Thanksgiving, I’ll share portions of our experiments in gratitude here. First, a compilation from a few of my students:
I’m thankful for sunsets, hot coffee, sugar cookie dough, and happy endings. For allergy medicine and athletic shorts. I’m thankful for my mother’s home cooked meals, especially when they involved mashed potatoes. For hikeable mountains and swimmable lakes. I’m thankful for handwritten letters. For forgiveness. I’m thankful for mac ‘n’ cheese, washing machines, and spontaneity. That my family loves baseball. That baseball exists in the first place. I’m thankful for starry nights. For fireworks. For sunflowers. I’m thankful for the kindness of strangers, XL t shirts, and Instagram. For laughter that makes your stomach hurt and books to get lost in. I’m thankful that at the end of each day is sleep. For people who miss me when I’m gone. I’m thankful that children mispronounce words and for warm towels just out of the dryer. For chocolate cake and dirty white Converse that never get old. I’m thankful for sarcasm. For failure. I’m thankful for grace.
With thanks to my students: Sarah Altieri, Josie Rund, Jamie Westrate, and Taylor Dolan.
And my own gratitude list:
I’m thankful for new pens, for vulnerability, for fresh salsa. I’m thankful for the stray cat in our neighborhood who hunts the mice that would normally find their way into my house. For dark chocolate. Red wine. That my husband has decided he likes roasted brussel sprouts. I’m thankful my children will not fight in my backseat forever. I’m thankful for dreams that haven’t come true. For Lake Michigan. For flowers. For the pile of books next to my bed and podcasts. For strangers who smile back and those little grocery belt dividers. I’m thankful for seasons, for soap, for the window above my kitchen sink. That my son has my grandpa’s mannerisms. I’m thankful for the kindergarten teachers who tie the shoes of kids whose fingers haven’t managed the task yet. For insects that survive bike rides in kids’ pockets, tattered photo albums, music, and mornings I can wake up with the sun rather than an alarm. I’m thankful for bedtimes stories and boys who snore softly before the end of the chapter. For those who truly know me and still choose love.
Earlier this summer, I wrote about interviewing my grandma with my cousin, Sara Lamers Messink. A poet, a teacher, and one of my first friends, Sara and I grew up bridging the 80 miles that separated us with weekly letters exchanged back and forth. We eventually became college housemates and fellow English majors. We share a mutual understanding and appreciation for those things our family values most: the land, the table, stories. She has taught me to pay better attention to the world and words around me.
Sara has graciously offered to share a few poems; below are a few that resonated with me, along with a Q&A about writing and her process.
I phone to say
I’ll be there, Sunday dinner.
Grandma’s reply is wind,
the shudder of trees, birds’
bitter cries. Like me she cares
little for idle talk, talk
too small to bridge the distance.
The shortening of days,
a chill breaking in.
She asks of a friend, expecting.
I tell the truth: she lost it.
Wait for a lament
that does not come,
just silence first, then a sigh
that shatters miles with bold truth – It’s for the best.Itknows, the body. Outside the first leaves begin to turn.
What inspires you to write? What makes you keep going?
I’ve always felt compelled to write, I think because I have always loved to read and feel a strong urgency to read widely, deeply, and massively. If I accomplish nothing else in my life except inhaling and digesting books, I’ll be satisfied. That said, being able to contribute something to the vast amount of writing out there in the world is both an honor and is humbling. I write to be a part of something a tiny bit bigger than me, in this way.
It’s a challenge to discover new ways to stretch my writing and that challenge is part of what keep me going. I come from a family with a strong work ethic (yes, workaholics!) and feel guilty when I don’t write. By this token, then, it can be deeply satisfied just to get some content down on paper, no matter how awful. A wise instructor and mentor once told me “you’ll have the whole rest of your life to write good poems.” To that end, focusing on generating material is a way to prevent the “it’s not any good” worries from stopping me from writing at all.
Blues on Sunday
You’re at it again,
crowded by peppers, herbs,
oils, pots steaming.
This time a soup:
rich heat, chipotle, cayenne,
this time blues on the stereo,
from room to room it wafts,
sultry pleas and to what
do I owe this pleasure
of staying in, January Sunday night,
snow splayed across the lawn
but no mind, we’re in here, this warmth, this
lovely heat, alive?
The knives you work
like a sleight of hand, garlic,
onion, thyme, tomatoes
diced down, tiniest forms.
I can’t do much but pour
the wine and raise a glass
to vines, black soil, hands that toil,
seared by sun to pluck
this swollen fruit piece by piece
and plunk into buckets
as the chicken stock, olive oil
commingle and scent the air,
flood it, the weight
of the heady voice, horns and sax, wailing
guitar and blustery sadness.
That certain loss.
The “he” who’s gone
and done wrong, left town
with money, with her battered
heart, rent past due,
kids all sick, boss out of line and here
in our small kitchen
the last yellow light of evening
goes and leaves us
warmer than we’ve ever been and
we sink into soup, the blues, its wail, its cradle
stunned with gratitude,
the purest joy we beg
to keep coming.
Can you talk a bit about your writing rhythm? Do you show up at the desk and play/experiment? Focus on a particular project?
My process depends on whether I’m working in poetry or prose. Poetry is much slower, but that’s what I gravitate toward. When I sit down to write a poem, I first spend a large block of time (at least an hour) reading published poems. This gets my head in the right place. I like to have lots of uninterrupted, non-structured time for poetry, largely because it takes so long to enter into that mental and emotional space where poems come from. Ideally, I’ll have four hours or more to oscillate between reading poems; generating new, rough material; revising poems-in-progress; and polishing or ‘picking at’ nearly-done drafts. I work best when I am working on several poems that are in various stages of done-ness. I always have lots of projects going at once so that I can bounce back and forth between them – when I run out of steam on one, I take up another.
I find that the more you know and learn and understand about writing, the harder it becomes to actually do it. I don’t believe in waiting around for ‘inspiration’ to strike – you have to show up and force yourself to do the work. (I have also been influenced by several writing teachers who have impressed this notion upon me). With poetry, especially, I have carved out habits and patterns that help me to get the work going: I have to write in the writing room in my house (I can’t work on poems anywhere else) and I work by hand (as opposed to via a computer) throughout most of the process. It’s not until very late in the game that poems find their way to the computer screen.
When it comes to essays and fiction, I’m less married to single process, though in both of these cases I need to complete an entire “messy” draft of the thing before I do any revision – I’m not a revise-as-you-go type. Right now I’m working on a second novel and have borrowed a lot of ‘rules’ from the National Novel Writing Month (which takes place in November each year) guidelines: I set a target word count and don’t quit for the day until I’ve reached it. I love being in the middle of many projects at once (all in various stages of complete-ness) because it prevents me from getting bored and helps me return to each project with refreshed vision.
got to see them kill the chickens,
my grandparents’ farm eighty-some miles
from home. Though some summer days
I helped feed, the coop a gray half-dome
tin igloo, low and strange,
that bright tunnel all straw and sticks.
The water they drank floated in plastic jugs
sliced to halves, there was corn they’d jab at,
pounding wings that kicked up dust and straw.
Cousins told me of the killings, how some Saturdays
they’d do as many as half a dozen, hand out
fresh hens to aunts for Sunday dinner.
Grandma tearing feathers from hot bodies
like tangles from a comb.
It was the way the legs still ran after the head
was severed that amused my cousins most,
that panicked race-without-a-finish-line,
survival-of-the-fittest in reverse.
I never saw it but can see my grandparents,
hands careworn, easy with the blood,
the mess, the stench – none of it too crude
to manage, the picture as real to me as
our grandmother, those same summer months,
pressing milkweed to our hands as we walked
through orchards, tugging back the petals
down to the bumpy pod, saying Look:
These could be fish if we really wanted them to be. And we never dreamed
How does the process and practice of writing impact you personally? Do you write for an audience? Is there a feeling or maybe even a word that describes what meets you as you write?
Well, I write for myself, primarily, and not for others. I never once think about an audience or reader when I’m drafting. I write because I have to do it and feel compelled to do it, and it is satisfying to (finally) do it well. Publishing is not all that important to me, especially when it comes to poetry (it’s publish or perish in academia, so my motivation to publish there is mainly career-related). I’d rather make effective art than publish it at all. I do benefit, of course, from feedback from others – that’s a hugely essential part of the process. I’ve not yet published any fiction, but do hope to. My motivation here is to meet the challenge of producing effective writing. If others read and enjoy it, that’s all the better, but I’m not dependent on a reader – or a reader’s approval – to keep going. It sounds trite, I know, but it’s the intrinsic reward that pays off the most.
That said, writing – whether it’s poetry, fiction, or nonfiction – is a way to understand your world and to wrestle with the dissonances in your life. It’s a way to work toward making sense of things that cannot be articulated in any other way. Writing provides an opportunity to put the rest of life on pause, to step out of the endless, busy stream of life and to reflect and ruminate on the larger picture, on the important things. It’s a way to record and also think through the various phases and stages of life, which I’m grateful for. Making art is one of the most spiritual things you can do, at least this has been true for me. It forces you to be honest, but also connects you to something bigger than yourself.
A couple of years ago we purchased my husband’s childhood home from his parents. I love the sprawling backyard that overlooks a farm – waking to the pink light of the sun rising over the field, the distant sound of a tractor, the wild turkey that pecks and scurries around our landscape, the old maple trees that stretch and provide shade.
I especially love all this when I’m not distracted by the weeds popping up out of the ground cover and those big patches of dirt where we took out the old shrubs and haven’t gotten around to re-planting anything yet.
One late, summer afternoon my husband came home from work to find me irritable and pulling weeds with my youngest son crying at my ankles. “We’ve got to do something about this yard,” I griped as a warm welcome-home greeting. He looked up casually and calmly said, “Well, our choices are to care or not to care.”
He’s so level-headed, steady, and full of common sense that it sometimes makes me crazy.
During the 10 years I visited this home before it became mine, I never once noticed a weed in the backyard. I once asked my mother-in-law if they were there. They were. They just didn’t torment me until they became mine.
Maybe — as much as I hated to admit it in that hot, irritable moment — Tim was on to something. It is my choice what I get to invest my time and energy in, what I get to care about. I’ve made choices — to parent, to teach, to write — so if I care deeply about those things, what will I have to let go?
I hate the busy game. “Are you busy? I’m busy. Much busier than you.” I fall into this trap so easily, (especially during that precious sliver of time called “prep hour” at school when the students disappear and I’ve got 54 minutes to pee and get my entire to-do list checked off) though it accomplishes nothing and creates stress for people on both ends of the conversation. But as a mom of three littles who teaches middle schoolers and a college class on the side, who really wants to write, and who is also an extrovert struggling with saying no, my calendar most often leans to the full side.
For years I’ve been tucking away wisdom of others on this topics of choices and time. One of my favorites — one I return to when I’m too busy finding excuses to get my butt in a chair and my thoughts on paper — comes from Anne Lamott. (You’ll want to read the whole article right after you finish with this one; it’s so good.) She begins with:
“I sometimes teach classes on writing, during which I tell my students every single thing I know about the craft and habit. This takes approximately 45 minutes. I begin with my core belief—and the foundation of almost all wisdom traditions—that there is nothing you can buy, achieve, own, or rent that can fill up that hunger inside for a sense of fulfillment and wonder. But the good news is that creative expression, whether that means writing, dancing, bird-watching, or cooking, can give a person almost everything that he or she has been searching for: enlivenment, peace, meaning, and the incalculable wealth of time spent quietly in beauty.
Then I bring up the bad news: You have to make time to do this.”
She then advocates for figuring out what things we’re going to need to give up if we’re going to write or live with any passion. Less social media. Letting the housework go. Skipping the news for a night.
For me, letting go is also an exercise is not being enticed by the guilt about the things I feel like I’m supposed to care about.
For example, as much as I’m afraid to admit this in a public forum (oh, the judgement!): I rarely put laundry away — retrieving unfolded clothes straight from the laundry baskets next to the dryer works for us. And I sometimes feel shame or guilt when I admit to people that I hire a friend to help us keep up on housecleaning during the school year. But doing this is what enables me to free up the space to parent, teach, and write better.
Recently, I was telling my mom that after a long, frustrating day, my best therapy is often getting into my kitchen, turning on some music, pouring a glass of my favorite red wine, and cutting vegetables. Cooking. Mixing stuff. Making stuff. Concocting. The time passes and the kids stop by to whine and ask for stuff and I just keep going. I don’t mind — it feels worth it. She looked at me with sudden understanding in her eyes and said, “That’s how I feel in my garden.”
If you’ve ever been to my mom’s house, the first thing you’d notice is the garden. The flowers. The pots and perennials and flower beds. The lush colors. The life all around you. She loves this. This is her thing. I water my plants when they look like they might fall over and die if I don’t. She doesn’t just water; she fertilizers daily, people. She can’t pass by a weed without stopping to pull it out. She takes the time to prep and prune and preen. And she loves to give this time. She thinks nothing of it. The time passes and she doesn’t mind.
Here’s the thing: I notice my mom’s beautiful garden, her flowers. No one notices my weeds. Because they don’t matter to me.
But I do hope they notice the things I care about fully, the things I invest in. I hope when they come for dinner they can feel love and warmth from my kitchen. I hope when my students show up in my classroom they feel love and warmth from the teaching. I hope when I put my writing out in the world others from love and warmth from that, too.
When I think of my friends one of my favorite things about them is watching them living out their passions — their passions for dancing, for writing, for caring for orphans, for parenting, for teaching kids with special needs, for composting, for nutrition, for counseling — the list goes on. That’s not to say that these passions are easy or that the work is always fun, but there’s a commitment to it. There’s time that’s made for it because it not only matters, it fills them up somehow. And it’s so good to watch them give their good to the world.
Part of living into grace is loving those gifts — my own and others around me — and acknowledging that my weeds are fine. I can have weeds because although I love and appreciate a beautiful garden, it’s not my thing. I have other things. You have things, too.
And comparing “not my thing” to “your thing” would be silly.
So, this morning, I’m staring at those weeds in my backyard with love, not contempt. Because leaving them allowed me to get this written. Now, go and do your thing.
“We’re all just walking each other home.” — Ram Dass
Nestled back in the corner of my basement storage room are boxes of letters. Letters my cousin and I wrote back and forth weekly as children. Letters from camp counselors and cabin mates with whom I promised to never lose touch. Letters from my grandma (probably stained with homesick tears) sent to me in Switzerland when I was working as an au pair after college.
I rarely open the boxes. I rarely pull out a letter to read. It’s just enough to know they are there. It’s enough to know the words are safe and available if I’d need them.
I’m a collector — not of stuff, so much — but of words and images. I fill my walls with books and pictures. I refuse to throw away old notes, tattered bookmarks, or elementary school yearbooks. A bedside box is filled with years of half-full notebooks and journals. I take pictures almost compulsively. I nearly made it to the car with a box of old CDs to donate, but found myself sneaking back into the house to hide them in the closet in the spare bedroom instead.
Since I was a small child and started my first scrapbook, I’ve had a longing within me to capture moments, to find some way for language to explain the unexplainable, to find a way to pluck and store an ounce of time before it keeps drifting away. I desperately want to make sense of the world around me — to give it some order by paying closer attention, by attempting to catalog its events.
While I could research and name dozens of the ills and slipperiness of social media and our technological age, one of the gifts is the collective story we tell. It’s the logging and sharing of moments, the articles friends post that I never would have found, the images that connect me to places I’m not, and it’s the way it helps to keep a log of our own lives, too.
I’ve been struggling with writing for a public audience for awhile. Because while I’m a sharer, I want my motives to be good ones. It’s easy for me to become a little too aware of who’s reading. A little too addicted to feedback. A little scared of what’s okay to put out there.
But I want to step out in grace here in this space, stumbling toward grace, really. I want to share and write with you, not for your approval, but to try to name and understand our experiences because our stories are a little less overwhelming when we’re telling them together. My friend, Theresa, says the biggest compliment you can get as writer is someone saying, “Me too.” And isn’t a room of whispered “me too’s” stronger and more powerful than applause? At a writing conference I recently attended, Shauna Niequist said she writes, “As an offering, not a performance.” And that’s what I want, too. Performing is scary, an offering for a community — an authentic one — is imperfect and broken, but fun. Compassion beats comparison and mercy beats scrutiny.
I love the landscape of vocabulary and images that surround us, and I want to keep writing and showing up, not because it’s easy or it makes sense, but because it’s one of the best ways I know to keep walking each other home.
Stumble: trip or momentarily lose one's balance; almost fall. Grace: Undeserved redemption, sweetness.