Yellow Legal Pads and # 2 Pencils

I hate it when someone asks me if I write every day, if I have a special desk, pencil, pen, or whatever. I hate it partly because I don’t.  I don’t write every day, unless one includes Facebook posts, grocery lists or e-mails. I don’t really care about where I am or what pencil or pen I am using. I don’t get excited by the idea that Hemingway used yellow legal pads and number 2 pencils. I am not really a big believer in writing rituals.

However, if I have to answer this question, I usually mumble something about the fact that poems exist everywhere, (which they do), and we just have to be open to letting them find us. This kind of “writing mysticism” does not satisfy the most literal of my questioners, but it generally gets me off the hook, and I can go talk about something more interesting, like the book I am reading at the moment, or the extraordinary moment with a student.

It’s not that I don’t think about process. I do, but I think that in the end one can have all the great rituals one wants and still not produce anything noteworthy. Rituals can also be used as an excuse. “I couldn’t find my special pen” or “something came up during my writing time” or whatever. Those comments are exactly what they sound like, excuses.

Writing is hard work. Writing something sustained like a novel is even harder work. Raymond Carver once said that he wrote short stories because he didn’t have the long stretches of sustained time that he needed to write a novel. I have often said the same thing about why I wrote only poetry for so long. I could get a poem down, maybe only a beginning of a poem down, between picking up the kids and making dinner and grading papers. There’s no way that I could have written a novel during those years when I had children at home. I remember once, after I had driven to Havre, Montana, and back for an educational conference, I knew I would write poem about the way that the road dips down to each river on that drive. I wrote the names of the rivers on a napkin, and it floated around my kitchen for several weeks before I actually got the poem written. My daughter, then about 10, said, “I wondered what that list of rivers was for.”

In the last three weeks, I have written two poems. I don’t even remember now the circumstances for the first one, but the inspiration for the second came from a conversation with a colleague at the end of a long Friday afternoon meeting.  Even now, when my kids are grown and off in their own lives, if I insisted on all the writing rituals, I would never write anything. I teach full-time. I often feel like I am either  grading papers, attending committee meetings or preparing for class. If I depended on ritual, I would never write at all. I write in and among all the rest. I have still managed to get two books published, two novels and many essays written. But they get written on scraps of paper, on different computers, at different desks.

I will concede that there are moments when I am “obsessed.”  A few years ago, I sat down at the computer one evening, typed a paragraph, read it to a friend, and then kept going. I didn’t even know the narrator’s name for about the first 10 pages. I finished that novel in six weeks. I was compelled to spend every spare minute on it. I woke up one Saturday morning and pulled my computer into my lap and told my husband that I was working. He said, “You are obsessed” and I answered, “Yes” and kept writing.   I taught a night class that semester, and, one evening, I had left my main characters in a very cold river when I had to leave home to go to the college in the evening. I was freezing all night and finally told my class I had to get home to get those kids out of the river.  I think that’s a little obsessive and odd. I know it sounded odd to some of my students. Luckily, they were forgiving.

But those obsessive moments are rare. For me, writing happens in the odd spaces. It happens on a Saturday morning. It happens at my desk at school, or at the kitchen table at home, I don’t need rituals.  I know that the moment when a poem finds me will happen without any tricks or rituals I might create.  The poem will find me, rather than the other way around.


10 thoughts on “Yellow Legal Pads and # 2 Pencils

  1. I like a quote I heard years ago (forget who said it though…) – “I only write when I’m inspired. I just make sure I’m inspired every day at 9 am.”

    • No worries, Betsy. I have no memory of you asking such things, and I am glad that you like it. Feel free to link it to yours if you want

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