Many say that teaching and writing feed one other, but I tend to disagree. I teach high school, and when school begins, my fictive imagination shuts down. All of my creativity funnels into planning classes and thinking about assignments. The alarm sounds early, I spend my day matching the energy of adolescents, and then there’s that pile of essays, a fixture in any English teacher’s life. At night, it takes a monumental act of will to reach for the pen instead of a glass of wine.
Last spring, I approached the Dean of Faculty to ask if I could go part time this year in order to have more time to write. He agreed immediately and told me how impressed he was by my commitment to writing. Although grateful, I didn’t quite share his admiration for my decision.
Rather, I was consumed by doubt and questions, the familiar writer’s terrain. Would I stay up late drinking bourbon and watching episodes of “Breaking Bad”? Would I waste the mornings, sleeping in and reading in bed? Would I squander hours on email and other Internet emptiness? Would I take up some hobby like robotics or glass blowing? If and when I did sit down, would I write one good sentence, one good page? If I didn’t or couldn’t, exactly how deep would my despair be? Then there were financial considerations: how to watch my bank account dwindle as my credit card debt swelled.
As all writers know, it’s the easiest thing in the world not to write. The world conspires against us, hijacking our attention at every turn. Screens surround us and literally beckon to us (what’s your preferred text tone?), and other aspects of life call, too: our jobs, spouses, children, and friends, to name a few. All these demands swiftly detract from the task at hand.
In her wonderful book Mystery and Manners, Flannery O’Connor talks about “the habit of art.” What is a habit but something that’s ingrained, stuck. There are bad habits (chewing your fingernails) and good habits (exercising), and it takes a mental shift and an act of will to kick or gain one. O’Connor says, “Art is the habit of the artist; and habits have to be rooted deep in the whole personality. They have to be cultivated like any other habit, over a long period of time, by experience.”
Looking back at these past months of being part time, I feel proud because I spent my time well: I showed up. But what I find most valuable isn’t a particular story or chapter but finding something akin to what O’Connor is talking about: a habit.
“I think this is more than a discipline, although it is that,” O’Connor says.” I think it is a way of looking at the created world and of using the senses so as to make them find as much meaning as possible in things.” To embrace the spirit she’s talking about, one must pause.
When anything passes quickly, it’s difficult to see; it takes going to the page, where things move more slowly, in order to truly see the world. And when you open your door and go back out, you feel not just refreshed because you’ve done something that is truly good for you (a good habit) but because you’ve taken the time to cultivate a way of seeing and existing in the world that helps you to see that world more sharply, with greater vision. You remove yourself in order to see more clearly.
Last month, I was asked if I could return to full time before the end of the year: A colleague got pregnant, and the department needed someone to take her classes. I checked my bank account and had no choice but to say yes. As I sit here writing this, I’m staring at the reality of losing the valuable time I had before, but I wonder, how strong is this new habit? I have to ask, is writing an easy habit to kick? I certainly hope not.
Scott Laughlin teaches English at San Francisco University High School and is co-founder and Associate Director of DISQUIET: The Dzanc Book Literary Program in Lisbon, Portugal. He studied at Boston University and New York University, and is currently enrolled in the MFA Program at Converse College. He has been published in the SF Bay Guardian, Post Road, ZYZZYVA, and will be included in the forthcoming book, Such Conjunctions.
When it comes to writing, procrastinating is what I do best. I recently read Megan McArdle’s article in The Atlantic, “Why Writers Are the Worst Procrastinators.” In it, McArdle suggested that writers are the best procrastinators due, in part, to a fear of failure. She theorized that because most of us were on the “A” team in school, when writing we are faced with the potential reality that whatever natural talent or “smarts” we might possess isn’t enough. That suddenly, we must work…hard.
But what does it mean to work hard when you’re writing? Does it mean we read incessantly, hoping to gain the genius of Chekhov, Carver, or O’Connor by osmosis? Does it mean we listen to everything that goes on around us to steal from the lives of our loved ones and turn their woes or celebrations into art? Or perhaps working hard means pouring over each word, trying to pick the most excellent one?
For me, it means all of those things, and I find that work overwhelming. I love to write, and on some level, I know I have at least a small amount of talent. Yet the idea of honing that little bit of talent into something beautiful is stifling, so I find myself the day of deadlines cranking out as many words as possible and sending those words that pose as stories to my writer’s group. The work is passable but far from the best that I can do.
Several weeks ago, I found myself talking to writer friends about “the story I was writing.” I spoke about what was happening in the story and who the characters were and how those characters related to the characters in other stories I have written. What I didn’t tell them was that “the story I was writing” was only in my head. Sure, I knew what and who I was going to write about. I even had some sense of what might happen in the story, but what I really had wasn’t “the story I was writing.” It was “the story I might write if I absolutely had to write it.” I think a lot of us are often in this state—a story on the tips of our fingers but no real motivation, other than an impending deadline, to write it.
For most of us, this isn’t a good place to be. While I operate fairly well in last-minute situations, the truth is that I don’t have the time or energy to deal with the stress of a writing cram session. I have a husband, two kids, jobs, and a variety of other people, events, and things that need my attention. Taking a twelve hour stint on a Saturday to pound something out isn’t fair to anyone involved—especially my characters.
As such, I devised a plan to beat my procrastinating ways. I have taken to studying one short story that I love each week. I analyze what, when, and how the writer uses dialogue, description, narration, and then I use my super-detailed format notes provided by said story to help me write my own. I guess in a way you could call me a copycat, but I’m not plagiarizing or stealing. I’m simply helping myself get words on the page.
You see, up until this point, I have been afraid to study other writers’ works too carefully for fear of finding those writers’ themes, words, and situations in my work. Of course, when I read Bastard Out of Carolina last year, my work took on a grittier tone as inspired by Dorothy Allison, but I did not truly study her work; I used that osmosis technique I mentioned earlier. Sure, I read incessantly, and I think my writing improves with each new book I read, but the idea of trying to get into the head of the writer and understand he/she made the choices she did and emulate that was entirely off limits until recently.
Yet each day, I sat in front of my computer and counted my cursor blinks. It didn’t matter how well I scheduled my writing time or how many pre-writing rituals I performed. Ultimately I was left with a white screen. Finally, I’d had enough and decided I must do something new. I thought back over my most recent residency for my MFA and remembered an amazing craft lecture where Andre Debus’s “Leslie in California” was discussed and how taken I was by the story. It occurred to me that I could use the blueprint Debus had already created to help generate my own story. What I was left with was one of the best shitty first drafts I have ever written.
It forced me to realize that the hardest part, for me, is to start, and if picking a part the work of another writer and giving my best try to emulate what that writer does helps me get words on the page, perhaps that’s not so bad.
Shea Faulkner holds a Master’s of Education from Southern Wesleyan University and is pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing from Converse College. Shea’s primary literary interests include the Southern family as portrayed by Southern writers. She currently works as an adjunct English and Reading instructor at Spartanburg Community college and is an independent quality consultant. She and her husband, Campbell, reside in Upstate, SC, with their two children, Ian and Caroline.
Photo credit: Becca J.R. Lachman
Scott T. Starbuck
The 2008, and following years, financial, social, and environmental meltdowns changed how I write. Way before that, I was a skeptic of mainstream news, but after seeing millions lose homes, savings, and jobs while the planet was BP-ed, fracked, and “Fuk-ed” (Fukushima-ed), I ignored ubiquitous sensationally irrelevant news. In other words, David W. Orr’s statement in Children And Nature that “young people on average can recognize over 1000 corporate logos but only a handful of plants and animals native to their places” matters more to the future of humans than much of what is said in the NFL, NBA, or CNN. Instead of using only traditional media, I get my poetic inspiration, as Noble Prize Winning Polish poet Czeslaw Miłosz, from striving to see reality. When I gave up television at age 15, my ability to hear and recall poem-worthy personal and social events dramatically increased.Having read James Hansen’s May 9, 2012, New York Times OP-ED “Game Over for the Climate” and having watched Bill McKibben’s February 10, 2014, video interview at Moyers & Company, I’m writing a poem today in strong opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline.
Chen-Ning Yang, who won the Noble Prize in Physics in 1957, said in a 1988 Bill Moyers World of Ideas interview “We have something like 10 billion neurons, maybe 100 billion. [ . . . .] And each neuron has something like 10,000 to 100,000 synapses.” However, the 2008 agenda-driven businessmen and their political puppets want you to mind-drive your thought car down one neuron road: theirs. Don’t. By comparison, with only 32 chess pieces, writer Marshall Brain, in his electronics.howstuffworks.com article “How Chess Computers Work,” notes “If you were to fully develop the entire tree for all possible chess moves, the total number of board positions is about [10 to the 120th power], give or take a few.” That means even though many of us have been boxed for the 12 best years of our lives, or much longer, we could think of neurons as chess pieces capable of many different moves, and then divergent and original thoughts will become possible.
Jacob Boehme and Robert Bly show the kinds of “divergent and original thoughts” to which I am referring. Jacob Boehme was quoted in Robert Bly’s Vietnam War protest poems The Light Around the Body: “When we think of it with this knowledge, we see that we have been locked up, and led blindfold, and it is the wise of this world who have shut and locked us up in their art and their rationality, so that we have had to see with their eyes.” Bly’s book won the 1968 National Book Award for Poetry, and in his acceptance speech he said, “Every time I have glanced at a bookcase in the last few weeks, the books on killing of the Indians leap out into my hand. [ . . . . ] As Americans, we have always wanted the life of feeling without the life of suffering. We long for pure light, constant victory. We have always wanted to avoid suffering, and therefore we are unable to live in the present. [ . . . .] Since we are murdering a culture in Vietnam at least as fine as our own, do we have the right to congratulate ourselves on our cultural magnificence? Isn’t that out of place? [ . . . ] I thank you for the award, and for the $1,000 check, which I am giving to the peace movement, specifically to the organizations for draft resistance. That is an appropriate use of an award for a book of poems mourning the war.”
One way to escape the “ubiquitous sensationally irrelevant” Machine is to walk beaches, rivers, deserts, or mountains, and listen to their voices, and to the spirits of creatures that inhabit them. Try it, and ideas will naturally surface like coastal cutthroat trout to flies.
In addition to the idea of poetic striving for reality, aforementioned Milosz advanced the concept of provinces in one’s life, and I agree that one’s stage in life can be a strong influence on poetic art. Whitman, “considered one of America’s most important poets” by the Academy of American Poets, wrote about what it felt like to grow old in his classic Leaves of Grass. I recently became a godfather of my niece Sky Starbuck which led me to compile a godfather box of important items like The Power of Myth videos by Joseph Campbell, influential poems like William Stafford’s A Glass Face in the Rain, and necessary films like Winter’s Bone. Even more importantly, I am cultivating a godfatherly attitude, which means advocating a future of sustainability and wholeness instead of the runaway train we are on to ecocide.
My poetic goal, therefore, is to produce essential work for humans who have, or will have, capacity to care, time to reflect, and willingness to act in meaningful literary, place-or-community based, and/or activist ways.
Scott T. Starbuck is a former charter captain and commercial fisherman turned poet and creative writing professor. His latest poetry collection, The Other History or unreported and underreported issues, scenes, and events of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries, was published by FutureCycle Press. He will read from it in San Diego City College’s Spring Literary Series on March 12, 2:30 – 3:55 p.m. in V-101 , and offer the chance for attendees to write eco-poems and share them as time allows. Starbuck feels destruction of Earth’s ecosystems is closely related to spiritual illness, and widespread urban destruction of human consciousness.Read More »
2014 brings many changes to our journal. First of all, we are sad to say goodbye to Sarah Gray, our Editor-in-Chief. Sarah has worked hard to get our journal up and running since its inception, and she has done an amazing job. Now, she is ready to spend some more time focusing on her writing and the Young Writer’s Workshop at Converse College.
Fortunately, the rest of our volunteers are staying on staff. In addition, several new people decided to join us: David Colodney, Kristi Hébert, Rebecca Landau, and Jacob Allard. Check out our Masthead for a complete staff listing.
Because of our growing staff, we have added several new positions to our team. We now have a Blog Editor, a Review Editor, and an Artistic Director. With these positions, we hope to provide more interesting content to our readers as well as more opportunities for our contributors to participate.
Therefore, look forward to weekly posts to our blog… Starting now! All of the editors on our staff are writers themselves, and we will share with you the joys and frustrations of being a writer. In addition, we are inviting guest contributors to share their perspective. We already have several weeks of content from talented writers planned, so we hope you will check back soon (and often) to laugh, vent, and be inspired about what it’s like to live the life of a writer.
If you would like to contribute to our blog, we’d love to hear from you. Check out our Blog Submission Guidelines for more information. And stay tuned for information about how to submit artwork or become a reviewer.
We are excited about everything we plan to share with you this year!
Debby DeRosa holds a BA in English from the University of South Carolina-Columbia and an MFA in Creative Writing from Converse College. In addition to being Editor-in-Chief of South85 Journal, she is the Marketing Manager of Five Star Plumbing Heating Cooling in Greer, SC, and she freelances as a copywriter and content developer. She and her husband, Joe, live in Greenville, SC, with their two daughters, Aimee and Ruby.Read More »
I cannot write in chaotic environments. I find it nearly impossible to focus and deliberate when surrounded by commotion, hubbub, chatter, even clutter—which rules out a lot of places. Last year I tried writing in a small college library. Initially, it offered the unobtrusive, almost soundless and studio-like atmosphere in which I work best. Then the library staff rearranged the furniture, including my favorite table, and students returned from their break, huddled and listened to pop music on their laptops, and conversed on their phones. Then came a new and improved “quiet area.” In the process, though, staff covered all the electrical outlets with seven-by-seven abstract paintings.
We’ve all heard that proverb, “The world doesn’t recognize your need to write.” When it comes to our writing, the world is uncaring, downright insolent. Before the library experiment, I found a local coffee shop with an almost contemplative atmosphere. Then the baristas discovered Pandora. Then they added a grand piano. Every time I find the ideal location in which to write, this process repeats itself. I fold up my laptop and move on to the next place.
Inadvertently, I discovered something—that a change in atmosphere can reveal our tendencies. When I went through the coffee shop stretch, I wrote an awful lot of coffee shop scenes, which is fine—to a point. Some writers, maybe most for all I know, can write at the same desk, day after day. You have to determine whether you are one of those people. I know that I’m not. I fall into a rut too easily and writing becomes like a sacred ritual that goes stale from the tedium.
For now, I’m moving forward with this nomadic approach. I keep two white noise MP3s on my laptop and carry large headphones. Sometimes it works. Then again, sometimes you find yourself at Panera Bread and every member of the table of six to your left is full of self-importance, determined to be heard above all else, and there’s nothing you can do but move on. Finally, two weeks ago, I went into one of those price clubs and bought a fold up table with a handle and a lightweight folding chair (from recycled materials) so that I can set up outdoors, anywhere with electrical access, until the Georgia heat and humidity get out of hand. Eventually, they will.
The late Harry Crews once described how he woke at 4 am and wrote until 8:30, when his gym opened. “Whatever doesn’t get written between 4:00 and 8:30 doesn’t get written,” he said.
For myself and likely for most of you, Crews’ schedule is impractical. What I’ve latched onto, though, is the phrase, “Whatever doesn’t get written… doesn’t get written.” No one cares whether you write or not. They really don’t. They’re not going to tone down their table conversations or take their cell phone calls outside out of respect for your art. You may find yourself having to constantly outrun them. Go buy a fold-up table and chair if you have to.Read More »