I realized early on that if I was going to be a poet, a notoriously underpaid and underappreciated profession, then I would need a second income—or to be more accurate—an income.
On the flip side, I also realized, as so many artists, writers and musicians have before me, that to practice an art while holding a full time job demands dedication and discipline. A flair for efficient scheduling also comes in handy.
A regular daily writing practice has been essential for me over the years. Sure, there have been times that I couldn’t manage it, but I always came back.
What follows is a journal entry I wrote nearly twenty years ago. It expresses succinctly why a regular practice has been so important to me.
A writer on writing:
For a long time I didn’t want to do anything but write. I took a job as a teacher’s aide, but when asked, I said I was a writer.
Every morning I pulled myself from bed in pre-dawn darkness, dressed quickly, and wolfed down a cold breakfast. I huddled in front of the apartment’s lone gas heater, notebook and pen in hand. Scribble, scribble. Gray cat flicking his tail at my hip. Scribble. My roommates were up and out to work within a half hour but my pre-work ritual was leisurely and long. I was a poet and on some mornings it came together and I proved it on the page.
In my 20s I was persistent and prolific, published in small local journals and two national anthologies. I read before handful audiences in bookstores and coffee houses. I dressed in silk tunics, embroidered jackets and Chinese slippers I bought in thrift stores. I had fun and a confidence in my art that came from hard work and experience.
I didn’t make a conscious decision to stop writing. What I did decide was to go back to school to earn my teaching credentials. Suddenly I had less time and I thought this was the problem. It wasn’t. The problem was the world inside my head changed. But I didn’t notice. I was too busy to notice. All I noticed was this: when I made the time to write I couldn’t write.
A few weeks ago I began again my daily practice. I have my own house now, old with chipping plaster, and two mortgages. I subscribe to a morning newspaper and I have inherited my mother’s generational habit of reading the obituaries before I drink my orange juice. I forego the rest of the newspaper, give my teeth a cursory brush and floss, then blow-dry my hair.
The house has central heating but it is still too cold for me in the morning. I grab my notebook, my medium point Bic and I huddle in front of a heating vent. Scribble, scribble. Rejoice and be glad! It’s come back!
What I had forgotten was not the AM hour between a blank page and a heating duct. What I’d forgotten was the grace of the day that followed. The words, images, metaphors, and similes rushing at you like trees and billboards and green and white highway signs. You can stop and grab one, turn it over in your head, contemplate it easily. Or you can let them rush past; it’s okay!—you can do that. They’re flashing lights and colors, pretty to glance at, but then you can move on. There will always be more. Tomorrow morning when you pick up your pen, there will be more.
So I am realizing, once again, that language is more than words popping into my head or out of my mouth. Language is the house I live in. It’s my country, my flag, my religion. It’s my frayed wool blanket, vanilla-colored, with satin ribbon binding the edge. It’s familiarity; it’s comfort. It’s a pair of glasses I perch on my nose so I can see the room I’m entering. It is a steady narration observing, describing, analyzing. It’s the voice that explains me to me.
Fellow writers: please tell me about your process and your practice. Musicians and artists: how do you keep your creative life alive and kicking? And are there folks out there who wish they could develop the time and energy to practice an art or a hobby or whatever?