Breaking A Writer’s Sweat

A little after this New Year, I posted about not being obsessed with my weight, which is hard, since I’ve been obsessed with my weight since, like, forever.  [The post was called “A Perfectionist’s (Sort Of) Happy New Year, Part 1] I talked about how people binged over the holidays, then started the New Year intent on getting their diet and exercise regime together.

In the same way, many creative writers talk about how many pages they are going to generate daily and when they were going to finish a project, when they have had a dry spell with the writing–when they feel they haven’t been behaving in the “healthiest” of ways creatively.

At the end of last semester, I couldn’t get any writing done because I gave into my students who somehow could not find the time all semester long to meet with me and suddenly absolutely needed to do that in the last two weeks of school. I was meeting twelve to fifteen office hours a week, when regularly I meet three. And I was reading the first drafts of student papers that were supposed to be turned in before Thanksgiving.

I was giving everything to my students–a common problem with female professors of all complexions–and I was so tired that I couldn’t concentrate when I sat down write, which had never been a problem with me before, until I remembered that I never tried to take care of myself before. I would just drink coffee and stay up all night and ignore the stress that was making my fibroids bigger and bigger and sapping my energy.

In the past, I would grim it out. But something has happened since I started feeling better. I don’t ignore want to my feelings anymore. I like feeling good and normal. So, I had to decide that I wasn’t going to run behind students who hadn’t turned in papers, just so I could have a perfect score on my teaching evaluations.  Of course, I had a little crying jag before then, when I realized I would never be a prefect teacher, but I got over it and at least my breakdown was in private.

Then, I turned my attention to my writing. One of the three books I’m working on is a novel and instead of trying to pay attention to the rhythms of a novel, I thought I could force it to work like my poetry does. (Which is basically through prayer. I’m not kidding.) Last year, I lied to myself that I would get the novel done in six months without a daily writing schedule. I’d try to write fifty pages in a week, and end up writing nothing that I thought was useful.

Usefulness is a strange concept when it comes to writing. By the grace of God, I am always  full of ideas and words. But sometimes, that’s the problem. I get an idea for a poem, but I’m trying to write the novel. Or, I decide I’m going to write in a straight line with the novel, and some scene comes to me, and it just doesn’t make sense in terms of where I am in my outline.

I want things to go my way, always–like any good perfectionist. I want the words to come to me in the ways I have dictated they will, and at the times they will. Recently, my good friend Crystal Wilkinson, fiction writer and co-founder of the journal Mythium: The Journal of Contemporary Literature, told me that I had to stop strangling my imagination like that. She told me, I had to just write whatever came and then, figure it out later. But just don’t throw anything away.

Frankly, even though Crystal is a well-known writer, I figured she just had it wrong when it came to me and my muse, until I was working on a chapter the other day and realized, I could use some pages I had written–five years ago.

Another thing Crystal keeps saying is, enjoy the journey, and I realize I haven’t done that at all. Even though I finished a first draft of a new poetry book three months ago (not the Phillis book, but another one), I didn’t even take time to celebrate and pat myself on the back. I just started in with revising that new book and continued worrying about when the novel would be done with no rest in between. But after I turned in final grades, I just sat back down at the computer, stopped worrying about the end of the novel, and just said to myself, “Write for today. Just for today.” And then, “Don’t worry where you’re going. Just get there when you do.”

It sounds boring and completely lazy, but actually I’ve gotten more done this way than I have placing huge daily expectations on myself. I can’t say it works everyday, and the perfectionist in me wants anything I write to be, well, perfect, but it does make me feel a little better to devote even just thirty minutes to writing, if that’s all I have. Just like with exercise.

You don’t have to work out for two hours to burn calories. Just break a sweat. So that’s what I’m trying to do with my writing. I don’t have to finish a chapter every day. I just have to write some words, and then, write a few more after those.

3 thoughts on “Breaking A Writer’s Sweat

  1. I am not sure you will agree, but I think many of the things that have happened to you are common to women. We tend to carry the “burden” around with us all the time. I do not write or teach, I have other things in my life that I have not been able to let go of. Also, it has taken me so long to realize that it is o.k. for me to feel good about myself. When one of my FB friends was feeling overwhelmed with “life”, I told her to start taking one day at a time, which I have been trying to do myself, for the last several years. Sometimes it does work and I am sure it is going to make a huge difference in your life. HUGS.

    • Barbara:

      I completely agree!:-) While I do think that Black women face some challenges that other women do not–such as the constant barrage in the media about why we specifically “can’t get a man”–as I said in the post, I think women teachers/professors of all complexions and just women period (teachers/professors or not)–which I didn’t say in the post but should have–face particular challenges that men don’t. Not only that, when we start trying to talk about those challenges, men will usually (though not always) tell us that we are overreacting at worst, or at best, start telling us how to solve these problems, when the reality is, you can’t solve all of society and change their specific expectations of women. For example, just when I think that I have gotten my “take care of me” strategies together and trained the people around me not to expect me to mother them and just generally inhabit a co-dependent role in their lives, someone pops up and tries to drag me back in and make me take care of him or her and do that “women’s work.”:-) So thank you so much for the hugs! I need them. And I give you some hugs right on back!:-)

      Take care,

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