For the last two weeks, I’ve been experimenting with writing dates, during which I agree to meet my friend Katie, a fiction writer working on the draft of her novel, at a coffee shop and write. We don’t talk much. We don’t review each other’s work. We just…hold one another accountable. If I know someone expects to find me somewhere at a given time, I tend to show up (versus telling myself “I’ll go write tomorrow at 4:00,” in which case I usually get caught up cleaning my closet or reorganizing my collection of dictionaries).
Some days I spend more time staring out the cafe window than actually putting thought to page, but I always manage to leave with something. When I joined Katie, the moon was waning, and so I dove back into writing by hauling out some of my drafts from last summer and revising them. When you haven’t written for a while, working language can feel very much like an aerobic workout when you haven’t been to the gym since last summer: it’s a little painful, you feel out of breath, and you spend every minute thinking, “Is it okay to quit now? At least I tried.”
Some days I worry that writing dates, while effective, may ultimately be a quick fix for a long-term problem: I’m more externally motivated than I am internally. I used to feel horribly guilty about this, until I realized that the entirety of the American public education system is designed to make students externally motivated: grades, prizes, praise, etc. Graduate school moves away from this, of course. Grades are no longer a primary motivator. There are fewer prizes and fewer people cheering you on. It starts to become solely about the project you have imagined…and then there’s nothing left to do but embark on the hard work of it.
My father once told me that he wished my sisters and I had failed a little more often in our lives. At first glance, this sounds like a terrible thing to wish for, but he meant it in the sense that we had all excelled academically with a minimum of effort. While we made ourselves busy, had we ever really come up against the difficult work of a personal project? He could see this before we all realized it. Now, each of us struggles with creative work, which comes easily to no one except in rare and short-lived moments, exceptional bursts of clarity that dissipate before we’ve had our fill. We work hard for a little while, then wonder why our normal efforts haven’t manifested as we imagined.
I sense that, for me, making the transition to being a more internally-motivated writer has begun but is going to be a slow and difficult process. But there have been a few bright spots thus far, glimpses given by the universe to let me know, as a friend’s Tarot deck so recently told me, “I can’t fuck it up” as long as I keep going. For example, when I pulled several poems from my book manuscript, I started seeing different connections among the poems that were left, threads that had previously been buried in my hurry to complete my thesis: water imagery and a uniform Midwestern landscape. The book was suddenly more about region than it was about the speaker, and this possibility excited me. Lately, I’ve been wary of starting any poem with “I,” which may be, in and of itself, a sign that the externally motivated performer-writer is giving way to the internally-motivated writer-as-medium (in this case, medium for a landscape).
Our next writing date is Monday, and since we’ve entered the waxing moon, I’ve been drafting new material for our last two meetings. Yesterday, I was embarking on flood research. This process is radically different from the previous draft-and-dash technique I employed the night before workshops. And it is slower and so require more patience…something else I need to work on.