On daily writing quotas, a life spent writing, and reversing destiny

My husband recently forwarded the essay “10 Rules of Writing” by Amitava Kumar that is too good not to share:

“If you have read this essay so far, you are probably a writer. That is what you should write in the blank space where you are asked to identify your occupation. I say this also for another reason. Annie Dillard wrote, ‘How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.’ Those words scared the living daylights out of me. I thought of the days passing, days filled with my wanting to write, but not actually writing. I had wasted years.

Each day is a struggle, and the outcome is always uncertain, but I feel as if I have reversed destiny when I have sat down and written my quota for the day. Once that work is done, it seems okay to assume that I will spend my life writing.”

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The Only Decision that Matters

“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” Gandalf, The Fellowship of the Ring

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHappy birthday to J. R. R. Tolkien! See the bottom of this post for a fun clip of the cast and crew of The Hobbit showing off (or not) their knowledge of the man himself.

One of the challenges of our modern life is sorting through the various pressures, real and imagined, that we face on a daily basis and deciding which ones really matter. While Gandalf’s advice to Frodo might seem overwhelming—what to do with our time is everything, really—it also brings focus to this moment and this day as a microcosm of our entire life.

Or, in the words of author Annie Dillard, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives”:

“What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living. Each day is the same, so you remember the series afterward as a blurred and powerful pattern.”

How will we spend our time today, and what do our choices tell us about how we are spending our lives?

Routines, Overlearning, and Jackson Browne’s Teapot

Photo of TeapotWhen I went to college oh-so-many years ago, I rolled my eyes at schedules and routines. You see, I knew that I performed best without too many restrictions or limitations, when I was free to do whatever, whenever. It had worked for me in high school, so college would be no different. Or so I thought.

I was wrong.

I learned the hard way—and, if I’m to be honest, not really until long after graduation—not only that college-level work requires a much greater sense of discipline than high school but, perhaps even more important, that not having a routine or schedule keeps me from tapping into creativity. If I start each day as a blank slate, I spend most of my mental (and creative) energy simply figuring out what to do next and prioritizing.

However, if I wake up already knowing what I’ll start doing and what comes next, I have more space and time to engage with the activity before me. I wish it were a habit I’d begun earlier rather than later.

Many people who are successfully creative have detailed or even rigid routines that both allow them to hone their skills and give them mental room to focus on what’s important to them, routines that have built-in opportunities for overlearning. In the History of the Eagles documentary (watch the trailer, below), Glenn Frey talks about what he learned about the creative process from Jackson Browne’s teapot when Frey lived above Browne’s apartment in Echo Park:

“Around nine o’clock in the morning I’d hear Jackson Browne’s teapot going off with this whistle in the distance, and then I’d hear him playing piano… Jackson would get up, and he’d play the the first verse and first chorus and he’d play it twenty times, until he had it just the way he wanted. And then there would be silence, and then I’d hear the teapot go off again, and it would be quiet for ten or twenty minutes. Then I’d hear him start to play again, and there was a second verse. So then he’d work on the second verse and he’d play it twenty times. And then he’ go back to the top of the song and he’d play the first verse and the first chorus and the second verse another twenty times until he was really comfortable with it… And I’m up there going, so that’s how you do it: elbow grease, time, thought, persistence.”

Dumbledore’s Army, Still Recruiting

The next in my series of Artist’s Dates in New York City was unexpected. My son and I had planned to visit the free Game of Thrones Exhibition (GoT will figure later in this series of Artist’s Dates posts), but when we arrived on a sunny Sunday morning, well before the opening time, the line of people already extended nearly the length of the very long block between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. So, instead, we headed south to attend the Harry Potter Exhibition in Times Square.

Harry Potter—the books, the movies, the characters and world—played an integral role in our son’s childhood, as it did for so many children of the Millennium Generation. Going through the exhibit with him reminded me that it also was a large part of my life during those years. I had read most but not all of the books when he did, and the summer before he went to college, I read all of the books in order without pausing so that we could discuss them on our daily walks. I will always remember seeing the final film in a theater full of members of “the Harry Generation” and getting as much from watching and listening to their collective reactions—the sighs, the cheers, the gasps, the spontaneous applause—as I did from what was on the screen.

The exhibit was shamelessly commercial in some respects. No photography was allowed, and while we muggles could don striped scarves and hold Alivan’s-inspired wands to have our photo taken upon entering, the cheapest print one could receive of those photos was $20. The exhibit ends, as all such exhibits do, with an extensive gift shop, where the new generation of Harry Potter fans begged their parents for stuffed owls and quidditch sweatshirts.

None of that bothered me, however. Not in the least. I was too much immersed in the amazing, magical, real world that J. K. Rowling invented long before she had a clue what her own future would hold.

In her commencement address to Harvard in 2008, Rowling spoke about the tenuous security of academic success and the freedom that comes with having nothing but those we love, “an old typewriter and a big idea” (scroll to the bottom of this post to view the entire speech):

“[W]hy do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.

Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies.”

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What did our son—now 21 years old and preparing to graduate from college, get married, and go to law school—choose as we made our way through the aforementioned gift shop? A Dumbledore’s Army t-shirt.

That unabashed idealism, a sense that we really can band together despite our differences and have an impact in and on our world, is what I love most about Rowling’s “big idea.” To what extent have the young adults of today internalized the idea of Dumbledore’s Army, making them just a little more willing to step forward when called upon rather than succumb to the bystander effect, a little more hesitant to be cynical in a world hungry for optimism?

Or, for that matter, how many 40-something mothers?

Tomorrow: Artist’s Date, New York Weekend Edition continues with Tom Hanks on Broadway.