Time, Choices: The Lenten Approach for Poets

Writers—everyone—procrastinates, even Italo Calvino:

“In theory I would like to work every day. But in the morning I invent every possible excuse not to work: I have to go out, make some purchases, buy the newspaper. As a rule, I manage to waste the morning, so I end up sitting down to write in the afternoon. I’m a daytime writer, but since I waste the morning I’ve become an afternoon writer. I could write at night, but when I do, I don’t sleep. So I try to avoid that.” from “Thoughts Before an Interview”

Of course, we don’t always think of our absence from the writing desk in terms of avoidance or delay. Instead, we complain about the scarcity of time and blame our inability to commit to writing on other things: the length of the work day, the vagaries of capitalism, the demands of child rearing, the clutter in our home.

We say: There’s never enough time . . . . If only I had a patron . . . Next month will be easier . . . Once the kids go back to school . . . When I retire!

These oft-repeated mantras bespeak more than the challenge of fitting art into a full life. They reflect the choices we make. Or don’t make. After all, 24 hours is not nothing: if we sleep for eight, there’s still 16 hours remaining in which to work for a living, deal with house, parent the kids, and so on.

In a conversation with my friend Chelsea yesterday, we talked about what we’re saying YES to. To what do you declare your Yes? And what do you say No to?

Some fraction of the day must surely belong to ourselves.

I believe that. Do you? I believe there’s room in every day to write or study or work on a project that means more to me than even the very legitimate forms of compensation I receive from employment, or the rewards and satisfactions I derive from parenting and having relationships.

I’ve long since decided that having time to write and study means more to me than being a consumer or participating in idle entertainments. Still, we all have different priorities.

Knowing what matters to us, and then choosing how we distribute our time and attention accordingly, is a worthy and necessary process for any writer to undertake.

The Lenten Approach

If you’re especially busy and over-scheduled consider “the Lenten approach” during the next week or two or three. I’m not Catholic but I encourage my students and clients to make a conscious choice to eliminate something specific for a pre-determined period of time. This is not just about renunciation; I think the absence of one thing makes room for something else. Ideally, something chosen and meaningful. Try filling that space with writing or study.

You could skip the weekly show, log off Facebook, quit saying Yes every time your kid asks you for a ride to an activity away from home. Sit on your hands when the committee needs a volunteer or your friends want to go out for a drink. Decline an invitation that you’d ordinarily accept.

Tell your partner/children/housemates that you’re taking time to do this other thing that matters to you. Ask for solidarity. It’s my experience that spouses and children are more willing than you might expect: they want you to be happy, fulfilled, alive in the work for which you are uniquely suited. If you are a parent, especially a parent, remember that your children need to be independent at times, too, and to gradually emancipate themselves from your constant involvement in their lives. They need to see sturdy self-reliance and full-on creative engagement modeled for them.

Buy ear plugs. Lock the door. Go MIA for a while.

Do this long enough to learn a new pattern, a new habit, a new mode of being that favors the cultivation of your art.

Like me, you may find that there’s a sweet relief in showing up to write when compared to some of those other things you’re accustomed to doing with your time.

“If the remission of pain is happiness, then the emergence from distraction is aesthetic bliss. I use these terms loosely, for I am not making an argument but rather attempting to describe the pleasure that comes from recognition or rediscovery of certain essences permanently associated with human life. These essences are restored to our consciousness by persons who are described as artists.” Saul Bellow, in ‘It All Adds Up: From the Dim Past to the Uncertain Future’ 

An Invitation and an Antidote to Isolation:

Fall Poetry Apprenticeship Program

If you long for a bit of structure and benefit from creative writing prompts, literary inspiration, and the accountability of working with a teacher, consider joining me in this eight-week, correspondence course which can be done from the comfort of your home. We’ll take a boot-camp approach to writing a new poem every week through the end of November. You can also sign on for a private coaching session with me, and receive feedback on the work in progress.

Photo by Matthieu Nicolet

Photo by Matthieu Nicolet

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