Guest Post: Practicing the Literary Arts by Carol Park

I consider my practice of the literary arts routinely. Do you, dear writer?

I’ll appreciate your comments. Being asked to write about my literary practices has galvanized me to think on this in a deeply personal and extended manner. It’s like putting a stick of words in the ground and tying the frond of the iris bloom to the post so it won’t fall to the ground. And this experience of writing about it leads me to assert, every writer routinely should.

Why Writers Need to Think about our Practices

I love assorted green leaves and shapes of plants and trees as much as I love blooms. To enable my plants to thrive, work needs be done. I plant them, fertilize, water and prune off spent blooms or brown and stiffened stems. Taking astute care of plants requires something more than innate or intuitive knowledge. Plants can die from too much water as well as drought. Yellow leaves can mean a lack of the right plant nutrients or an excess of watering.

Much advice has been poured into this one wee literary soul—maybe yours too. It’s come through words addressed to the aspiring writer by esteemed MFA profs to book-launch events to blog posts and magazine articles. Too many good—and sometimes conflicting—exhortations and absolutes. The result—a hammer whacking my tender literary soul. Sorting out is needed. Will I do what authors have preached? Do you wish to also? Read on.

Questionable though Common Advice

  • Write from 6 AM to 7 or 8 AM daily without fail

I’ve heard or read such authorial dictums frequently. I’ve resolved to do so. It worked. For a while. Life, and my body, keeps changing. When my babes were little—waking me up whenever they had a tooth coming in or other discomfort and my immune system weak—getting up at 5 AM would leave me too tired to think or sure to catch the germs they had.

Decades older, I need exercise to shake off cobwebs clinging to my brain. A wise female writer friend told me, “Mandated daily writing is good for him, not you.” Here’s my alternative:

  • Setting aside one day to embrace having no responsibility to my household

This means no need to shop, cook, or do laundry. Freedom to devote a happy four to seven hours to my literary practice!

  • First clear the desk or head.

One author advices clearing the desk first. This becomes license for me to tend to urgent administrative tasks. I start in, sure it will take only thirty minutes. I don’t set a timer and more minutes go whizzing by, their accumulation unnoticed as one thing leads to another. Two hours with no writing done.

Is the advice bad?  On reflection I realize my underlying authorial anxiety. Or is it a need to be needed that drives me? Perhaps a compulsive voice from deep within deceives me. Another injunction:

  • Spend fifteen or twenty minutes a day writing non-stop with no censure of your work. No lifting of the pencil – or fingers.

That worked well for me one day, but hasn’t carried over to a daily practice.  I’d never get revision done if I stuck to this because fifteen minutes often becomes an hour or two. Clearly discipline, self-awareness, and hard choices are needed. Other advice I’ve read:

  • Cut off the call to spend time with a friend. Just write.
  • Don’t join the family on weekends for an outing or party. Just write.

Some discipline, some choosing of what is best over the good is of course necessary to carry any project to completion. But I wonder if those writers who carry out the above proverbs can maintain long-term committed relationships. Two of my MFA friends, who were husbands at the time, ended up divorced in the three years following the completion of their degrees. One of them, prior to the program, authored a book about being a dad. Ironic.

I wonder if the author who writes four hours strictly every day has a spouse or a maid who fulfills the household needs. Or are the speakers of writing absolutes overstating what they actually do? I’ve confirmed that with one person.

I don’t think I’ll regret giving a ride to my friend with cancer, unable to drive while in treatment. One story I’ve read features an adult voice who remembers her mother locking herself in her study for three hours every day while ignoring all claims to attention from her young daughters. She counted on them to fend for themselves. A pathetic image stays with me: the oldest, a twelve-year-old, became deeply frightened because blood started flowing from her “private parts.” She knocked to no avail on her mother’s thick study door—after three minutes of pounding a stern voice told her to go away. More hours of desperation.

I’d rather have kids who grow up well than write twelve novels.

Given all this, poems and flash pieces—both fiction and non—have worked well for me in this recent season of grandchildren and sick friend. A novel is still under revision. It will get done and our income doesn’t depend on it. If it did, maybe I’d be like the mother above.

Thinking and writing about practicing the literary arts are helping me decide what advice to absorb or let spill off. What to cut off and what to leave on.

What’s Right for Me Now?

What do I do at this particular time?

  • Set goals for myself—ones that can vary.
  • Tell someone of a particular goal—for accountability and celebration.

Today’s target: spend four hours in writing work (and writing work counts as creation, revision, or the business of researching where to send, sending them out, and keeping track of the submissions).

  • Don’t bludgeon myself when I fail to meet my goal. Embrace light-heartedness and hope.

I go in spurts. Sometimes I’m very faithful, other times heart-felt needs—whether to declutter my garage or update my wardrobe—lead me astray. Or perhaps I’m actually treading on a path that’s needed?

  • Writing as a part of a community.

Consider what kind of relational time you—the unique person you are—need.

I limit myself to one, or at most two, meaningful encounters weekly. These are friends with whom I can share deeply of my soul. It can happen as we walk or lunch together. Or even in a group—such as a come-when-you can, for-a-fee writing group. There we respond to a prompt and then read to the group. Writing done in this manner—from the unconscious—and then shared helps me feel deeply connected to another.

In a different kind of group—one of writers who’ve met for years—we come with our polished work and receive suggestions, questions, and commendations. Separate from this, relational needs are met as we each take fifteen minutes to succinctly describe current thorns in our lives and receive empathetic understanding.

Occasionally handing off a poem or reading a flash piece to a friend offers me the kind of connection I crave.

Going a hermit-style literary life would erode my confidence and motivation. Perhaps even turn me nutty. Or into a raving wife and mother.

  • On failing my goal, I choose another goal, perhaps penance. And soon!

So I only did an hour of work instead of the four I aimed for. I decide to abstain from the Sierra Club hike I dearly wanted to join. Instead I stay home Saturday and write. Or, perhaps I’ll complete necessary home chores and then write on Sunday.

Perhaps the reasons for failing my goals were completely out of my control—no penance needed. Still I problem-solve—l ask husband to bring home Chinese takeout. (I love cooking—but writing first.)

What does this add up to?

  • Choose a configuration for your literary life that fits you. Something organic to your personality, external impositions, and rhythms of life.
  • Pen your thoughts about practicing the literary arts in order to help you carry them out too. Writing them down serves a dual purpose. It brings an exploration of ideas and reality and strengthens our resolve.
  • Evaluate what input you want to retain. What will work for you at this time and place in life? In other words, what does the container of your soul need or not need? Cut back on activities of lesser importance.

 

Today I applied this last dictum by releasing myself, at 2:30 pm, from the resolve I’d made this morning: to visit the gym for weight-lifting. A day or two later is soon enough, I decided, in order that I’d have time to finish this. Priorities can be liked to a rosebush. Good-looking, healthy stems and leaves must sometimes be cut off. Then there’s enough light that disease and mold cannot take hold and trimming makes a lovely shape.

Maybe you’d rather just be a creature of habit in your literary practices—i.e. the one hour of writing every morning. If that habit is sustainable and productive for you, fine. For me the freedom and flexibility of re-evaluating and varying my patterns is essential. I plant and fertilize and see what colors come.

 

Carol ParkCarol Park’s poetry appears in the journals SLANT, Black Fox Literary Magazine, and Minerva Rising; her fiction has appeared in the anthology Irrational Fears, as well as The East Bay Review, Inigo, and The Harpoon Review. Two of her stories have been performed by actors on a Hollywood stage as part of the Pasadena Arts New Short Fiction Series. She earned her MFA from Seattle Pacific University.

Her homes are far apart—from suburbs of San Francisco, to redwood wilderness, to cultural mazes of Japan. While teaching and befriending English learners from distant places, she’s learned how little she knows and how precious is the meeting of minds over tea.

http://carolpark.us/wp/welcome/

Carol’s poetry appears in Black Fox Issue 15.

 

2 comments to Guest Post: Practicing the Literary Arts by Carol Park

  • writing is an amazing art ,it provides peace and actually releases tension of the writer through open up words

  • Rosalie Nelosn

    I really appreciate the concept of finding your own discipline for writing time, and adjusting it according to life!!!! I know I could become more disciplined, but like the author, too much rigidity is a set up for failure.
    Good insights and advice.

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