After explaining there should be just enough tension between our thumbs to hold a piece of paper, the monk paused to ask if we would like to repeat any steps before we practiced zazen posture. Nervous student that I am, I wanted to review everything. What if I stepped into the zendo with my right foot? Worse yet, what if while sitting zazen I had to sneeze or an itch surfaced? I’d traveled to Tassajara, a Zen Buddhist Center, to say a personal goodbye to our California life before we moved to Iowa. Therefore, I was determined to gather every instance of sunshine, ocean scent, and left-coast vibe I could.
The move to Iowa meant more time for me to write. Our past eight years were filled with a full-time job, graduate school, various part-time jobs, the pregnancies, births, and early years of our daughter and son, all while navigating Los Angeles traffic. When I wrote a poem it looked like this: 10pm, cup of tea, stack of essays to be graded, sandpaper eyes, an infant waking up, work emails, dirty dishes, oh yeah, poem-thingy. These were slim years.
A universal piece of writing advice is to keep a daily notebook. Between the demands of my job, family, and sanity, writing took the first cut. In retrospect, I often made the wrong decision, and in hindsight, I still struggle to see how I could have balanced a writing life with my specific demands of work and family.
In interviews writers are often asked about their writing processes. William Stafford, in Writing the Australian Crawl, counsels writing early in the morning before anyone else in the house stirs. Billy Collins writes after waking up before the language of the world invades. Michael Chabon retreats to a basement for days at a time. These are hard practices to keep for anyone, especially a sleep-deprived, breastfeeding mother, whose body has been synced to another for survival and nurture. In a recent interview, poet Charlotte Pence said about balancing writing and early parenthood: “I know this isn’t sexy to talk about, but I feel like we need to have a bit more of these discussions…” It’s not sexy talk to talk about the process of writing and what a writer has to sacrifice or attend to in order to practice his or her craft. However, it should be a talk about discipline in both senses of the word: deeply studying a branch of knowledge and training a person to follow a certain code of behavior.
As much as the move promised rebalance, it also filled me with trepidation. Now that I had time to write, what if I could not? I knew a cursory primer on Zen Buddhism would not provide answers, but I hoped it would help me shed my anxious skin. So, I sat zazen. Which means I just sat there. No revelations. No sneezes. Two itches. One cramped leg. A wall, some thoughts, the same wall. The monk told us to let our thoughts play across a screen as though they were a movie. “Don’t follow them,” he said, “Simply remark, ‘Isn’t that interesting?’”
Almost a year and a half after the move, I do write more. I don’t write everyday, but now I have a writing practice, which I’ve come to understand as a series of self-discovered principles, rules, or revelations that work for you, the writer, in a larger conversation with and against writing practice conventions. Here are mine:
- There will be slim years. Everything changes.
- Writers need other writers. Whether it is to bemoan or celebrate any part of the process, share recent work, or ask business related questions; we should support each other. The campfire of writers is small, share the warmth.
- Don’t conflate the processes. The poet who writes my poems is not the same poet who revises them or submits them. I use my writing time in three specific ways: to write new work, to revise old work, to submit work. To me, the energies of these endeavors are vastly different; therefore, I must treat them as such.
- It takes time to write, so make time to write. Once upon a time, I believed that poems arrived gift-wrapped from a muse, but now I think poems are like home renovation: a large amount of time spent at the hardware store looking for the right part. I schedule a weekly session where I am alone, writing.
- It can be harmful to tell new writers to write everyday, because when the schedule isn’t followed, guilt ensues. Instead, do something everyday for your craft, even if it is only as grand as reading a poem.
From my desk I can see our street, a quaint Midwestern neighborhood, which is winter or winter-like, most of the year. I find myself looking out the window after I’ve lost a thought I was following. The right line alludes me or the concept I was exploring confuses me further. The everydayness of the view: neighbors coming and going, a gust of wind carrying leaves or snow, the schedule of delivery trucks and mail, remind me to just be and breathe, if for a moment. Isn’t that interesting?
Rachel Morgan is co-editor of Fire Under the Moon: An Anthology of Contemporary Slovene Poetry. Her poems has appeared in Fence, Denver Quarterly, The Pisgah Review, Volt, and other journals. Rachel’s poem, “Baptism,” appeared in issue 298.2.