It seems odd to write about what I do when I can’t write while I’m in a fairly prolific time with my writing. I think my key to not getting bogged down in a fallow period is that I keep a notebook with me at all times.
Since I was 15, I have carried with me some form of writer’s notebook. In high school I carried around a paper brad binder, then graduated to a three-ring binder where I kept neatly re-copied “finished” poems, not then realizing to what extent all the drafts could be mined later for the raw ore of writing. Of course, then, there wasn’t much of a revision process at all. Without ever having heard or thought about it, Ginsberg’s first-thought-best-thought became first-thought-only-thought in my composing process. So there wasn’t much to mine from the slag of my thinking. As I went off to college, I moved my notebook into a five-subject spiral. Ostensibly, the spiral was for notes for my classes, but never having learned how to take notes, I tended to work on ideas for stories and poems in the back of my college classes while half-heartedly listening to the lectures on Texas politics during the nineteen thirties, or the arcana of macro-economics. After graduate school, I settled into using a hard covered book-sized artist sketchpad as my notebook. I like not having pre-printed lines to worry about and the texture of the paper appealed to me as well. The aesthetic of the writing experience became important as I relaxed into the process of writing, more than obsessing over the end product as I had as a beginning writer.
It is the focus on the process of writing, which I believe allows me to avoid the trap of not writing. When I am not working directly on a poem, or feel as if I don’t have something I am playing with, I will flip back through my notebook, reading through drafts of now “finished” poems, or bits of words that never progressed beyond the first contact with the page. Often in these lost bits, or leftover bits of language I find new starting points for new poems, or at least, places to grow larger leftover bits that I might be able to use later, or not. They give me something to play with while my mind searches for the poem I will write.
Last summer, instead of cleaning out my closet as I was tasked, I found old notebooks from up to twenty years ago. I sat on the floor of the closet reading through old scraps of my thoughts. I was surprised by how much I found that I could use in the present. Some were happy accidents, others were directions I was not ready to go in when I first wrote them, or didn’t recognize as a true direction. But my point here is that if I hadn’t of gone through the old notebooks I wouldn’t have discovered something to write about in the present.
What I also discovered from the old notebooks was that I am writing more in the last few years than I ever did twenty years ago. I write the beginning and ending dates of each notebook in the inside cover as I begin and finish a book. It used to take me up to two years to finish off the space of the sketchpad. For the last three years I have run through the same sized book in six months. I credit a large part of that to making the time to sit and work through my current book on a daily basis. In other words, when I can’t write, I do exactly what I do when I am writing well: I sit down and write. Sometimes I write on a specific poem I have been working on, other times I just flip through and re-read what I have written. It is the time I make myself do this that is what makes the writing occur. I don’t wait to be inspired, or when I think I can find the time. I just do it. I sit down and I write. Or at least pretend to write. I don’t worry if what I am writing is worth a damn, I just write trusting that I will be able to find something, if not now, later, worth thinking about. I trust that the poems will come, that I will write something, that the muse will eventually talk back.