- Eats, shoots & leaves (commas)
- The Girl’s Like Spaghetti (apostrophes)
- Twenty-odd Ducks (hyphens, parentheses, quotation marks, periods, and more)
Here we are again, just over a week after the start of a new year, and deciding whether or not to make resolutions. For me, that means writing resolutions. I suspect that a primary writing resolution (if you make one) is to spend more time writing, which means giving writing higher priority. Sometimes this is possible; sometimes not. Work, family, other needs claim attention.
As someone who’s worked her whole life, I also know that while work claims time, the structure of work offers help. If you know you have only half an hour to write, you write. If you have all day, drifting is definitely possible.
This year, I plan to end my formal job in mid-August. I want to write more, not sandwich writing between other demands. Can I do that effectively? Just as I love reading, but can’t read 24/7, I love writing, but can’t write 24/7. I also need to get out in the world for stimulation and renewal of ideas.
But I also need structure and my resolution this year is to set that structure to make sure that my desire to write is matched by my actual practice.
Here we are in the week between year-end holidays and, if we’re lucky, we are on holiday between Dec. 25 and Jan. 1. For years, I worked and envied those who were off, but for several years now, my time has been my own and I feel sorry for those who have to squeeze holiday “days” into work life. In addition, my children are grown and gone, although I am grateful for their visits and welcome them as often as they have time and are willing to come. My thoughts turn to writing, but…what happens next?
I suffer from what my late mother used to describe as “having eyes bigger than my tummy.” This no longer applies to food, although I admit to overeating at this time of year. Now, it applies to goals. In the past, I’ve planned to finish A and B and C and make a start on D. Of course, I never completed my list, leaving me frustrated. This year, I’m going with the flow—writing daily without “must finish” deadlines, and enjoying my process. Today’s Boxing Day (Tues., Dec. 26), and I’ve been writing this way since last Friday (Dec. 22). I’ve found my rhythm, I’m accomplishing more, and I’m enjoying it more (the true test). Why don’t you join me?
For the last couple of years, I’ve had the privilege of leading a class called “Writing in All Forms” for Scholar OLLI on the Concord Campus of California State University, East Bay.
For those who don’t know, OLLI stands for Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. The founder, Bernard Osher, makes grants from his foundation to provide noncredit courses to adults over 50. There are OLLIs all over the U.S. and if anyone can claim a legacy, it’s Bernard Osher. He promotes endless learning, not just for attendees, but for class leaders, too.
My class is filled with fabulous writers and I’m not the teacher, I’m the leader/guide. I learn as much as the people who attend. Each session lasts only five weeks (there are three each academic year) and they whip by at a rate faster than Mach 1 because we have so much fun critiquing our writing and talking about our craft. The class includes novelists and memoirists and poets and short story writers. Attendees write every type of work from gut-wrenching to humor. They’re fabulous. And the stories they have to tell—in whatever form they choose—are amazing. I learn about their unique lives and marvel at their gifts.
I’m deeply grateful at being offered the opportunity to be a part of this wonderful program. It’s improved my own writing, given me a community of writers, and blessed me than I could have imagined.
I have a love/hate relationship with holidays. On the love side, summer holidays enable me to engage with new experiences that work their way into my writing sooner or later (I call it experiential research). In fall/winter, I see family and friends more often and connect through annual cards with the people I don’t normally see from year to year. I recall and reflect on past experiences that also work their way into my writing eventually.
On the hate side, I eat too much after swearing I won’t and, more importantly, watch my writing practice slip off its organized rails. During summer, I travel and I collapse with sensory overload at day’s end. In winter, I either juggle social gatherings or nest.
Determined to keep up my writing practice this fall, I signed up for NaNoWriMo. Writing 50,000 words in a month should keep me moving. For December, I’ve already written an “appointment” in my calendar and set an “alert,” not one, but two. This year, I’ll see if it works.
I have long advocated a daily writing practice to my creative writing students and I’ve argued that you can accomplish a lot, even in as few as 15 minutes a day. The trick is to put in those 15 minutes, no matter what the season.
Earlier this summer, I had the pleasure of visiting a small museum dedicated to Seamus Heaney. Located in Bellaghy in Ulster, “home” place is exactly the right term for this very special place. Museums don’t have to be large to be effective and I found that, in Ireland and Northern Ireland, there are many small museums that are amazingly effective, often more so than their large and famous counterparts.
The area around Bellaghy was Heaney’s home and an inspiration and source for his writing. The lower floor is devoted to an exhibition about Heaney, but upstairs are two important spaces. One is for children (most museums I visited in Ireland and Northern Ireland were devoted to providing space for children to explore and create). The other is for the words of Heaney himself. You can listen to him reading many of his poems and I spent as much time as possible letting his words in his own voice wash over me. They are printed, if you want to follow along, but I found that his voice in my ears was worth more than any word on the page.
I have read Heaney’s work many times over the years and was privileged to hear him live as he read his work once at the University of Michigan. Regardless of the number of visitors, as I sat on the upper floor of the museum, putting on head set after head set, I could retreat into his world, his words, his voice.
Biography and links to some poems, podcasts, videos, and articles: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/seamus-heaney
“Digging” on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KNRkPU1LSUg
Seamus Heaney in conversation with Michael Laskey, fellow poet and co-founder of the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival. This is an edited version of an interview recorded live at the Poetry Prom 2010 organised by The Poetry Trust. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/podcasts/75876/seamus-heaney