Exits and entrances

Dearest Liana,

Structure? Yes, I also need structure. Like you, I find myself craving the structure of a classroom. I want someone else to ride herd on my writing process. I want a group of people to read and comment on what I write. I’ll admit that I envy your class on personal essays. I want to take a class. I want to take classes, which is why I applied for an MFA program in December.

I want structure, but I need it too. Currently, my life lacks the firm structure that will keep me on the task of writing. Structureless structure abounds, and I still haven’t got a handle on it yet.

My days have a familiar rhythm that start with getting children ready for school and preschool and wind down when I pick both of them up from the after school program. I’ve tried to map my days to create my own schedule. Kids out, writing starts. Kids in, writing over. I imagined that I would stay at my desk for hours working on assignments, essays, or blog posts. I would leave my desk only for short breaks and refills of coffee. I would write all of the words. All of them. In my imagination, there’s a writer who always writes if not at her trusty laptop, then in her beloved journal or any scrap of paper she could find. She would write and write and write and publish and publish and publish. Always writing and always publishing. The schedule of her own design would allow for only productivity and not much else. There would be no sick days, interruptions, or distractions. She would be a writing machine, and others would likely die of envy from her commitment to her craft. She would be a serious writer. Serious writing would be what she does.

For some reason, the writer of my imagination appears chained to her desk. Can she not get the work of writing done without the chains? Might she not produce without her desk nearby? I have no idea where I found this particular idea of the writing life. Maybe it came from discussions with academics about writing. Maybe pop culture influenced me. Maybe I imagined that this writer was too much like me, distracted too easily, so I forced her to remain within close proximity to her desk.

Truthfully, I do get distracted. I start and stop writing. I begin essays that I never finish because they weren’t supposed to be essays, which I didn’t realize when I started them. They were attempts. This writing was necessary to complete because they existed so close to the essays that I needed to write. I journal. I don’t journal. I walk. I do laundry. I help in my daughter’s classroom. I think about writing. I envision new projects. Sometimes, I start them. I read books. So many books. Some are on craft. Others are memoirs, essay collections, poetry, academic monographs, self-help, and enchanting creative non-fiction. I try to create structure, and I haven’t yet succeeded. I make schedules and then routinely ignore them. I make plans and abandon them.

As I write this post, I’m sitting on the floor of my office by the windows soaking up the sun. The cat sits in my lap in front of my Chromebook, which is one of her favorite spots. Her purring is part of the soundtrack to my writing life. I feel lucky for the sun, the windows, my 15-year-old cat who snuggled with me as I wrote a dissertation, a book, another book, and so many essays, a space to call my own, and the silence of my home when two children away at school. I’m sitting on the floor because today I cannot bear the writing desk or my own expectations. I had to get low to lower my expectations. I’ve already written more words on this letter than I expected I would be able to.

The lesson that I’m trying diligently to learn is that writing is about more than my attachment to the writing desk. Writing is more than my unending hunt for structure that makes me write more. What I keep learning is that I never stop writing. I write all day every day in my head. I approach the world as a writer, but not all of my thoughts make it to the page. And I don’t want them to. Structureless structure gives me time to think and dwell and create.

Occasionally (like this week), the lack of structure weighs on me. Especially hard. I slink away from my desk and find other ways to bid my time. I write a TinyLetter. I journal. I write a letter back to you. The creative life is the hardest for me in the moments of waiting and uncertainty. I’m waiting to hear if I will be accepted or rejected to an MFA program (structured structure!). I’m waiting to find out if two essays will be accepted or rejected by a publication that I adore. I check and recheck Submittable hoping for updates. I find none. I’m waiting for essays to be published: three in total. I’m waiting to see if my recent spate of productivity was a fluke. I’m waiting to decide if I should jump into a book project or if I should continue to avoid the beginning of a such a daunting task. On a week like this week, I wish for distractions or a firm schedule that allows no time for waiting, worry, or concern.

I drop kids off and return to the waiting. I pick kids up and try to ignore the anxiety that clenches my jaw. I take them outside to play with bubbles and sidewalk chalk. I blow bubbles, and the kids chase and pop them. With fierce joy. I can’t help but be joyful too. I try to write about bubbles, but none of my words can match how I feel during this time with my kids. I let that essay go.

This morning at breakfast, my daughter and son ate their waffles. I sat with them sipping my coffee. My son made a funny noise. My daughter laughed. They chattered at each other. My son grabbed his cup, no longer a sippy cup, and took a large gulp of milk. I looked at both of them in amazement and turned to my husband, “When did they get so big?” He shrugged. They seem to be getting bigger every time I glance their way. I’m afraid I missing it. I’m afraid that I’m missing them growing while I plan yet-another-schedule and wait on my writing to sort itself out.

Suddenly, I’m okay with not always writing. I’m not writing, I tell myself, as I watch my kids play at breakfast instead of eat. I’m not writing right now because I can’t bear to miss this moment when my baby no longer looks like a baby and my daughter shows me glimpses of the young woman that she’ll become. Often, I’m not writing because I want to be close to what’s happening rather than rehearsing it in an essay later. I want to see them grow, not write about it.

I keep coming back to Ada Limón‘s “On the Value of Not Writing.” She writes:

When we are not writing, we are calming ourselves down enough to pay attention to the exits and entrances and connections. Perhaps we can even unlatch the door on our own.

We have to give ourselves permission to write and not write. Being attached to the desk does me no favors. I glance up at my red desk now from the floor. It is less scary from the view down here. I should keep this in mind. What I’m realizing is that the more I try to structure my writing life, the more I’m not so sure that I’m cut out for the writing life. The writer of my imagination lacks flesh and bone and connection. She’s not real, and she’s not helping. Structureless structure might not be what I want, but maybe it is what I need. I keep writing at my desk and not.

Isn’t that what we want to happen? I hope so.



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