Writers on Writing, Routines, Habit

I love reading biographies about writers and interviews with writers. I love peering into their work space and coming to a greater understanding of how they operate. The current issue of The Writer’s Chronicle has an interview with one of my favorite contemporary poets, Kim Addonizzio. The interview, which is only available in print, covers a wide range of topics, and while it does not delve too much into Addonizzio’s specific writing process, it does provide some glimpses into it. For instance, she mentions listening to classical and jazz while composing new work, and maybe this shouldn’t come as surprise, since Addonizzio also plays music and frequently busts out her harmonica to play the blues after she reads a few poems or her fiction.

What’s more interesting about the interview, however, is what Addonizzio has to say about writing in different genres. She admits that some writers are purists and stick to only one genre, but she writes poetry, fiction, and essays. She is quick to note how writing poetry can help with other genres because it teaches a writer to develop precision of language and metaphorical thinking. This is why, when I used to teach creative writing, we always started with poetry, before delving into any other genre of writing. Poetry, as Addonizzio states, helps students focus on the importance of correct word choice and the weight of a single line, and though prose may be longer, those same rules should still apply. It may be typical, too, for us to start out in one genre, but there is no harm in expanding to other genres. She mentions starting out with poetry and then writing fiction when she was in her early 30s. Since then, she has published two novels and two short story collections.

It’s worth picking up the latest issue and reading the interview. It’s another window into a writer’s habits and work routine. For the teachers out there, there is good advice too, namely the importance of writing as both a teacher and a writer and always questioning the techniques a writer used and how that can be covered in the classroom, or turned into a writing prompt.


What’s Behind a Poem?

Recently, I got in a conversation with a friend about Donald Hall’s life and long career. This occurred after I blurbed her forthcoming book and drew some resemblance to her collection and Hall’s poetry, at least in her treatment of everyday subject matter and rural scenes. My friend then noted that Donald Hall, now 86, has stopped writing poetry and is only writing prose. In fact, his latest book is a prose collection, Essays After 80.

I had already known that Hall stopped writing poetry. Prior to the release of his latest book, he gave a lengthy interview in Poets & Writers in which he confessedthat he has stopped writing poetry and joked that it’s because he no loner has enough testosterone. Hall, a former U.S. Poet Laureate, did admit, however, that he keeps revising old poems. I still wonder to what end.

In an interview with NPR, Hall was more specific regarding his inability to write new poems. He confessed, “Prose is not so dependent on sound. The line of poetry, with the breaking of the line — to me sound is the kind of doorway into poetry. And my sense of sound, or my ability to control it, lapsed or grew less. I still use it in prose, but the unit is the paragraph.”

My writing process is similar, in that, for me, poetry often begins with sound and rhythm. I may have an image, but the structure of the poem is dependent on sound, especially the breaking of the line and the progression of the image or extended metaphor. I write and rewrite to stretch the language of a line and to play words off of each other for rhythmic effects.

In the same interview, however, Hall admits that he didn’t see the essays coming, but they did come. We can hope that new poems will come, too, but his statements regarding his inability to write new poems raises questions about what composes a poem and what is needed. Is it possible to still compose once the senses start to dull? Poetry is so dependent upon the senses and the structure is so reliant on sound that it seems inevitable the process will become more difficult with old age.

A Call for a Change in Habit and Routine

If you do a Google search about the writing process, you will find numerous articles that preach the importance of routine, habit, and discipline. Those are certainly important characteristics, and in any writing course that I teach, I begin by addressing the writing process. Specifically, I tell students that everyone’s process is different, but you have to find a routine that works for you. You have to show up and do the work, not expect inspiration to merely find you. It never works that way. Sometimes, I share this link/article with them about the routines of famous writers, everyone from Ray Bradybury to Susan Sontag.

I’ve had the same writing routine since college. More specifically, I write in the morning, often starting with journaling or a recording of dreams, and then moving to a draft of a previous poem or new poem. I either sit at my writing desk, in the bedroom, or at the dining table. I’ve had an affinity for writing at dining tables since college, when I had no other place to write because I shared a cramped apartment with three of my friends. In college, I developed the routine of writing in the morning, before my late morning/early afternoon classes. I hustled to finish drafts of poems or short stories before my afternoon and evening workshops. Beyond location, I have other specific aspects of my routine. I journal and write all drafts of poems by hand. There is something to be said about breath, rhythm, and writing by hand. Revisions are later done in Word, printed out, and then written over in pen, before revised in Word again. This is what works for me.

Lately, however, I’ve needed to clear my mind and sweep away some dead energy. I felt confined to a space. While routines and specific habits are important, so the writer gets in the habit of sitting down in a chair and showing up for the muse, there is also something to be said about breaking out of habit. For four days, I ventured to Cape May and used the time not only to see the town again, but also to write. In that span of time, I wrote seven new poems. n addition, I plowed through some books that have been stacked on my shelves for weeks, even months.There is something to be said about a simple change of scenery, and it doesn’t have to be a mini vacation. It can simply mean visiting a new cafe or walking through different parts of your neighborhood.

If you are stuck, try breaking the routine, at least for a day or two. Take the journal and laptop and go to a new cafe or park. Take a long walk through unexplored territory. It will help, trust me.

Joyce Carol Oates Gives Writing Advice in 140 Characters

Edinburgh International Book Festival 2012 - Portraits
Acclaimed writer Joyce Carol Oates recently took to twitter to dispense some sound writing office. All of her tweets can be read here. My favorite tweet is “The first sentence can be written only after the last sentence has been written. FIRST DRAFTS ARE HELL. FINAL DRAFTS, PARADISE.” This advice should be included in the syllabus of every undergraduate creative writing class and MFA class. I also like her advice to “Be your own editor/ critic. Sympathetic but merciless” and to “Read, observe, listen intensely!–as if your life depended upon it.” The last piece of advice is especially important as a way to cure writer’s block. I find myself most inspired and ready to write after reading and observing, which require space, time, silence, and patience. To add to Oates’ tweet and to paraphrase T.S. Eliot, poetry is words on the page surrounded by silence. So, if you’re been in a writing funk lately, dig into a book, or go somewhere and observe a scene. It will help, I promise.

Writing Process/Writing Habits

Last week, I attended a free poetry workshop at the Osterhout Free Library in Wilkes-Barre led by friend and fellow writer Rachael Goetzke. This workshop focused on writing habits/the writing process. I enjoyed the workshop for several reasons, including the fact that it was a workshop I could just sit back and enjoy and not teach.  What I took from it is that I am indeed a creature of habit and do have a strict writing process. For me, writing in the early morning works best, before I leave for work. Later in the day, my mind is simply too clogged to write. I also have a specific place I like to write– at the kitchen table, with notebook if I’m drafting, or my laptop if I’m revising.

After I was uprooted this weekend, due to the evacuation in Kingston from the flood of 2011, I struggled to write. But now we’re safe and not flooded, thank God!  I’m back to my normal writing routine.

The other poetry workshops, including the one I’m teaching, will take place throughout the fall months. All are free, so why not attend? I know I posted this before, but here’s the list again:

September 20–Dawn Leas “Channeling Memories.”

October 4–Amye Archer “Language Poems”

October 18–”Performance Poetry”  Not sure who’s teaching this section.

November 1–Alexis Czencz Belluzi Not sure what her focus will be.

November 15–Jenny Hill “Heavy Metaphor.”
We’ll explore the use of metaphor in prose and poetry and use the library resources to write our own extended metaphors.

November 29–Brian Fanelli will focus on writing about home/place in poetry. We will look at how certain poets depict home/place in their work, and do some writing prompts that tie into home/place.

All sessions held in the Gates Lab.

Final workshop/oration/open mic December 13 (Reading Room)


New Work and Beyond

About a year ago, Big Table Publishing accepted my manuscript of poems that became a chapbook- Front Man. Since then, I’ve done a slew of readings around the tri-state area, making new friends and meeting fellow poets along the way. With the readings winding down once the fall is over, I’m going to have time to work more on a second manuscript of poems.  I worked on it heavily this summer, and I’m always surprised where the writing process can take you, once it takes over. I thought this second book would be another chapbook of 25-30 poems, much like my first manuscript. I thought it would be centered on relationship-based poems and the way men and women communicate with each other. There are certainly a lot of poems that deal with that, but after spending the last few months working heavily on this project, this project has spread out more than I envisioned. I started writing about my hometown more, the people that inhabit it, its working-class history, the working-class struggles of the here and now in this political climate.

I think there’s a thread to all of these poems, in the sense that a lot of them deal with relationships, not only with the opposite gender, but also with home, family, and friends.

These poems also differ in the sense that they stray from the punk rock language and imagery that anchored Front Man.  There are a few poems that re-use some of those characters, but only to depict them as older, to push their narratives forward, and to speak to some of the other poems in the new manuscript.

I’m also thinking this project could grow larger than a chapbook, especially since I already have about 35 pages or so, and another 15 would make it a full-length manuscript. I didn’t plan that either, but I’m just writing and writing.

I assume other writers encounter similar cases where they plan something so specific, but once they dig in and follow the writing process, the project changes somewhat. This can be a a wonderful thing because being so anchored and hooked to a particular subject matter, form, or thread throughout a manuscript can sometimes leave little room for other poems and other voices. Write and see where it goes!

Writing Process/Writing Life

Yesterday, the weather was mild and warm, and for the first time in at least days, the sun was actually out for extended periods. I made the most of the pleasant weather and took my reading materials and a notebook to a local park to sit outside and write. Without any way to use my laptop, I actually got a lot of writing done and I felt more focused than I had in a while, probably just from being outside.

This whole experience caused me to seriously consider how I structure my time to write. Most of the time, I write in the morning, at my kitchen table, for at least 30 minutes. And then I try to pour in another 30 minutes or longer after work, again, at my kitchen table. But a lot of times, in the comfort of my own apartment, I feel like I’m rushing the work because I’m thinking about emails I have to respond to on my laptop only a few feet away.

But yesterday, I didn’t have any of those distractions. It made me realize that when I leave the house in hopes of writing, I should leave the laptop home or not connect to the web. I find that too often when I go to Borders, Starbucks, or a local cafe, I spend far more time mindlessly surfing the web as opposed to getting much work done.

I’m even considering going to the park more and more, like I did last summer, to get serious writing done. No internet connection there. I’m curious as to what the writing process/space is like for other people. I suppose it varies from person to person.

With or without music?

The Best Damn Creative Writing Blog recently posted an entry regarding the writing process, exploring whether or not it’s helpful to listen to music while one writes. For the author of the blog post, music is too distracting while writing and causes her to hum along and crank the speakers instead of writing. I have the same issues, which may be surprising considering my first chapbook of poems, Front Man, consists of narrative poems about a front man of a punk rock band. But I can promise you not a single one of those poems were drafted or revised while I had music cranking through I-pod headphones or pumping through my turntable’s speakers. Like the blog post’s author, I get too distracted.

My writing process is pretty strict in the sense that I do most of my writing in the early morning hours. I try to get in a good half hour of journaling, drafting, and revising before leaving my apartment to teach. The rest of my writing is done in the evening, after dinner, and again, without music or distractions.

I still collect records and catch live bands when I can (though it’s less and less as I get older), but for me, music is separate from writing. Most of what I listen to now is on vinyl, so I have to carve out a chunk of time to listen to those records, just as I carve out time during the day to write.

Everyone’s writing process is different. I’ve had students in creative writing classes that need to plug their ears with I-Pod headphones while we write in class. For me, I need silence after I spin the records and I’m ready to write.

back to the early stages

Not long after Front Man was published and I did a slew of readings to promote the chapbook, I started wondering what next? What should I work on now? The poems from the chapbook, overall, have a distinct voice and focus on a particular music scene and the ideals that go with it. But I knew around the time I finished the book and it was accepted by Big Table Publishing up in Boston that I said all I wanted to say about that subject and it was time to move on.

Near the end of writing Front Man, I started drafting some new poems, with far different personas and even some different forms than the poems of my first book. I started to heavily explore the issue of relationships, of first meetings between friends, crushes, lovers, and what’s left after relationships unravel. I think some of this came from what I was reading at the time- a lot of Kim Addonizzio’s poems (which often deal with love, sex, lust, and loss), and Sam Hazo’s marriage dialogue poems, which explore how each gender communicates in a relationship. I also read Major Jackson’s new collection, Holding Company, and that collection has had the biggest influence on my newest work. In his third collection, Jackson leaves  behind the hip-hip references and longer narrative poems. For Holding Company, he created a series of tight, 10-line, sonnetesque poems, many of them dealing with a broken marriage and new beginnings/new relationships. I was especially impressed with the collection because of the leap forward he made as a writer, how he broke from his  familiar and probably comfortable personas and forms.

I have a good portion of poems written (probably 15-20 solid drafts,  just a few shy of a second chapbook manuscript). So far, it’s been exciting to take on new subject matter, new forms, and new personas. Finishing Line Press wanted to publish Front Man after it was accepted by Big Table Publishing, and recently, they told me they are very interested to see a second manuscript and will give it close consideration. But right now, I’m enjoying the drafting and revision process, figuring out how these poems will fit together and speak to each other. I’m in the process of sending poems out to journals, just like I did for Front Man, before it all came together. It’s refreshing to be back at the early stages of a new manuscript. Here is a new poem from the new collection I’m working on.

Old Lovers

He answered her motel call for company,

pulled her close, wrapped her in his long arms,

the same arms she used to imagine

caressing when she watched him swing bats

at their high school ball field.

For two hours, she made up for months

she ached to be touched,

nights she pulled a pillow close,

pretended she could feel his facial stubble prick her cheeks.

The old lovers finished, sparked cigarettes,

sat on the deck. They knew that come daybreak

they’d gather their clothes,

bathe and leave because she had her New York job,

and he his hometown carpenter work.

He liked to remember her moans,

his name loud in her mouth,

and she the strength of his hands

tracing her curves in the dark.

They always left before sunlight revealed

growing streaks of gray in their hair,

fine lines near their eyes,

bodies sore and tired, in need of rest

before meeting again.