My husband works in an office, in IT, and at his new job he attends a once-weekly meeting in which each member of his team speaks for one minute — and only one minute — about what they’ve been doing, what they’re doing now, and what they plan to do next. From what little I know about such things, I think this method comes more or less from the scrum approach to project management (also called agile development) (yes, I used to work in IT — I know things!), which since I learned of it a few years ago, I’ve thought was pretty nifty.
This is not a bad idea for Writerland.
One of the many differences between writing for a living and doing something else — say, in an office — is the lack of accountability.
On the macro-level, there’s accountability, sure. But daily, not so much. A lot of writers like to hunker over their keyboards like zombies over a corpse, glancing up possessively to make sure no one comes too close. But I’m thinking about experimenting with a more open process (for example, I gave 100 pages of my new novel to my writing group — which is obviously a no-no. But how do we know it’s a no-no? Who does this and lives to tell about it? I know all the arguments, and I agree with them, theoretically. But what am I protecting, exactly? And does it outweigh what I might gain? Flash forward to 100 pages sitting, marked up, in a drawer of my desk.)
I’d like to attend a weekly meeting like John’s, but full of working writers instead of IT guys and gals. In the minute we are each given to speak, we are not allowed to use the words Facebook or Twitter or laundry, but we are allowed to mention writing-adjacent activities, like publicity or teaching or readings.
“I taught two seminars and wrote a lot of junk last week,” I might say. “Well, maybe not a lot, but some. And I wrote one really good paragraph that may or may not ever be published–” this part is assumed by all in attendance, but I say it anyway “–and this coming week I hope to expand this sentence into an entire scene in which my four main characters huddle in a room while a storm rages outside and tell each other the truth about what they think about Georgia’s situation with Graham. And then Jojo dies alone in the sunroom, where a window has blown out — this is not the cause of her death — and no one in the living room knows it happens until the morning, when they’ve staggered out from under their storm-hangovers.”
(I will skip over the fact that this might be just one more way to avoid the actual work — because I just came up for air from an hour-plus of Freedom, and will immerse myself again shortly, so today it’s OK to diverge a little.)
I write Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. On Thursdays I’m with my son, and the weekends are for leisure and family. So on Mon or Tues or Wed or Fri, I’ll update this blog and its many curious and attentive readers (just kidding) for one minute’s worth of a post about what I’ve done, what I’m doing, and what I plan to do.
Last week: Let’s just call it a wash. There was a lot of meandering, some terrible scene writing, and a lot of Activities That Shall Not be Named. Today, I’m writing a scene that might substitute for a scene I’ve already written, to take the novel in a different direction -– in the old scene, the hurricane veers north and spares the big house where my characters sit. In the new scene, which I’m writing now (almost literally), the hurricane hits, and so on (see above).
And I guess the best thing I’ve written today (which, again, may or may not ever come to ink — and, also again, might be saying something not-so-wonderful) is: “Peter gestured and we both looked up at the ceiling, where a hairline crack in the plaster slowly extended from the light fixture toward the fireplace, as if drawn by an invisible hand.”
In my fantasy of Writerland, each week we hold an e-conference wherein each of us is held to one minute’s worth of accountability. How energizing and just plain fun I think that would be, hearing what everyone is up to on the page.
I’ve never applied to any writer’s retreat of any kind. I’m not taking a stand against them, of course, but I’ve always assumed that going on retreat to write implies that there’s something impossible or at least very challenging about writing within the confines of one’s domestic situation, something that one needs to escape. For many people, I think this is true (I’m imagining unruly children pulling the ink tape from their mother’s typewriter, scribbling on her blank paper and throwing whole reams into the toilet). But for me, not so much.
This past weekend I taught two classes at the Writers’ Institute‘s annual conference here in Madison, and it started me thinking about retreat and creative energy, about being stuck and getting unstuck. There’s no question that after being surrounded by the mania and hopefulness of writers and someday-writers that I feel a greater urge to create than I do on your average Monday, with laundry that needs to be folded and coffee percolating too slowly and a list of errands that need running, and so on. Maybe this is the lure of the writing retreat.
I am sitting now in my domestic writing retreat: my home office. When my husband and I moved into this house — more than twice the size of our old one, which isn’t saying all that much — we divided the four small bedrooms thusly: master for us, smallest for guests, and the other two for our offices. (Since that time, the guests have been moved to the newly refinished basement, and the former guest room has become the kid’s room.) We’ve tried sharing offices, and I’ve tried going without and writing at the dining room table, and neither option works. For us, sharing an office is like sharing a car or a cell phone — both of which, I realize, many couples do successfully. But that kind of sharing is pretty unimaginable for us. For one thing, his office is his man-den. This is a place of comic books, a yo-yo collection, many sci-fi paperbacks, and video games. Most often, since he works full time, this room is used in the dark. When he leaves the room, on comes his screensaver on two LCD screens: a psychedelic laser show, which our 18-months old finds riveting and I find almost scary, as if it’s alive and reaching for me. As if it’s going to worm its way out and inhabit the house.
When we moved into this house, there was floral wallpaper in every room (and in the master, matching drapes), and deep-pile light blue carpeting over the wood floors. In the kitchen were forty-year-old appliances and in the garage was a container of asbestos and a survival kit in case of a nuclear event. We removed the drapery and carpeting and wallpaper before we moved in, and we hired a color consultant to choose a palette of paint colors. We painted every room, thirteen colors total and twenty-six cans of paint.
For the small room that would become my office, the colorist chose pumpkin and radish She determined, in her wisdom and experience, that these colors would inspire me to create, would be bold without being distracting.
It’s three years later. This is the room in which I (finally) finished my novel, and it’s the room in which I started another. On the wall in front of me are three framed pictures (two photos and a print of a painting) of Stiltsville. Beneath the framed pictures are several pieces of paper Scotch-taped to the wall: a group exercise schedule for my gym, with a few classes highlighted in yellow (no doubt this schedule is out of date by this time, but it stays); a chicken-scrawled scrap containing the first words I wrote of my new novel (I was on an airplane at the time, a baby in my lap); a business envelope covered with the names of South Floridian plants, written by my stepmother and sent to me via snail mail; a printout of Stiltsville’s cover, in black-and-white; several torn pieces of palm-tree patterned stationary, on which I wrote a blurb request to Carl Hiaasen (and messed up, and started again; he passed). And another scrap with E.L. Doctorow’s words: “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
My desk is a large, thick piece of black-painted wood fitted onto two black file drawers; I had it made ten years ago, in grad school. There are two large windows overlooking my street and the lake beyond it, but I can’t see out them from where I sit. I’ve considered asking my husband to build a stage beneath my desk and chair, so I might see out — because I have good memories of sitting at my desk during grad school and looking out the window while writing and seeing people I knew, or birds, or cars, or stroller-pushing mamas, or hollering frat boys. There’s a bookshelf, with books on Florida and books on writing (and a small gag-gift sex book that my son often pulls from the shelf and takes with him on journeys around the house — it finds its way back, and for some reason I have neither moved it to a high shelf or thrown it away). An antique secretary desk that used to be my mother’s, used for storage. Photos on a third desk (also antique, also from my mother), including one of me and my two best friends from our MFA years — one of whom is now a bestselling author and a mother, one of whom is a writing teacher and a mother, yet to publish her own stellar writing). On another wall: two Masai necklaces I bought in 2000, while spending a month in Tanzania. And a Kodak ad from the 1980s, in which my younger self stands in a line of anxious miniature ballet dancers. And a print of my great-grandmother’s home (a chandelier from that home hangs in my foyer).
Which is all to say: I don’t claim to feel braced and energized and creative as soon as I cross the threshold of my home office. I don’t claim to be always productive here, or to feel moved by the spirit of great writing as soon as I sit down. I get achy and hungry and distracted here much more often than I get focused. I feel frustrated here far more often than I feel satisfied. But it’s mine, it’s filled with my things, and it’s very clearly the office of a person who believes herself to be a writer.
So the thing is: I know I have the retreat I need, even if sometimes (often), I don’t respect it. And sometimes I get all-out inspiration, from an overheard conversation or a great line of poetry — or from spending a few hours in the buzzing, manic, hopeful presence of people who care desperately about writing (and publishing) fiction. And sometimes in my little pumpkin-and-radish room, surrounded by the symbolic scraps of inspiration, I surprise myself by writing something I like, something I will keep. Which I guess is the whole point, after all.