Muscle Memory: Daily Practice

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Routines have never been my thing.

Examples: I don’t have a favorite breakfast food. I meditate only sporadically. I drink tea every morning, but sometimes morning becomes afternoon by the time I get around to boiling the water, and I always switch up the kind of tea or the cup or the amount based on how I feel. There’s really nothing I do at the same time, in the same way, every day.

Writing is no different. Though I’ve identified as a writer for most of my life, I’ve struggled to keep a schedule. Some days I can sit down and write ten pages, or a couple of new poems, or craft an essay in one sitting, but most of the time I write piecemeal, haphazardly, with intention but without predictable rhythm. I can’t sit at a desk for long periods of time, so I tend to find spaces to work where I can get comfortable, enjoy natural light, and spread my work out.

My favorite pens are those cheap clicking ballpoints that come from bank tellers’ counters or the takeout delivery person’s stash, and when one runs out, I rummage around in my car’s glove box for another one. Recently I’ve been writing with a sleek twist-up ballpoint that has a pocket clip and a metal casing, a souvenir from my partner’s family reunion in Indiana this summer, but it’s threatening to run out of ink. I’ve been buying the same notebooks for the last five years–unlined off-white paper, flexible cardstock cover, a footprint the size of a standard piece of copy paper with rounded corners, the whole object substantial but not heavy–but I’m not sure that consistently using the same materials counts as a routine. Rather, the pen and the notebook provide a familiar environment in which to work, when nearly all of the other factors at play while I write are mutable, shifting over time and through seasons.

Seasons photo collageAnd the seasons do shape my work habits. Slowly, I’ve come to realize that my best (and most prolific) writing happens in the late winter and early spring, and then again in the fall time, using the summer to read, explore, visit people, and connect to things that might inspire or inform my writing. In the dead of winter, well, I’ll just say it: December, January, and February usually find me catching up on my rest, baking all kinds of buttery, fatty, soup-type foods, and eating them while contemplating the meaning of existence. (I have spent the last eight winters in Vermont and Wisconsin, so I’m sure I’m not the only one who does this for a solid three months.)

But this summer, after spending my spring sending out applications for writing residencies, I hit a pocket of time where I was doing very, very little writing after having spent months doing a whole lot of writing, and it wasn’t okay. I didn’t feel like I was taking a much-needed break; I felt stuck. It made me uncomfortable. I was also voluntarily leaving my job of two years, going through the process of designing, producing, and recording an album with my band, and looking for a new place to live.

It was one of those times when I couldn’t stop listening to the stories in my mind–You’re not working hard enough, they chided, you’re not really a writer, you’re not diligent or dedicated or motivated enough to lead a self-driven life. I didn’t have a safe way to approach the act of writing without feeling the pressure to be good enough. I would sit down with my notebook and a mug of tea, but find myself literally walking away after writing down a few words. It didn’t help that I had been turned down for two of the residencies I applied for, but had not yet been accepted by the third (.

Back to my first thought, though: routines have never been my thing. Still, I needed something to get me started again. Then I was walking home after talking with my therapist about this fight I’ve been having with myself, this stuck place, and I got an idea.

On the messy work desk in my apartment, I had been hoarding a plain black chipboard box that closed with a black ribbon, a fancy piece of packaging I brought home from my job months before, intending to repurpose it. It was empty, full of promise. Instead of writing something in my notebook, where I kept pressuring myself to be perfect, I realized could write every day on a small note card and drop it into the box, dated and out of sight. If the cards were small enough, there’s only so much I could say on each one, limiting me to plain language and creativity and brevity and storytelling in tiny spaces.

I got home and got to work, my mind brimming over with ideas. Of course, being the expert procrastinator that I am, I first got to work on decorating the box. An old postcard of Frida Kahlo as an androgynous teenager went front and center, flanked on the sides by orange and green collage papers and two cardboard profiles of Great Blue Herons, which I’d cut from the craft beer six-pack in my fridge. One expired Nikki McClure calendar page and a couple of glue-sticks later, I had an object I could relate to. I sat down in my arm chair to write the first card, then dropped it in and shut the lid. It was painless, and at least I felt a small sense of accomplishment.

Writing Box cards

This was back in June. Since then, the box has traveled with me on weekend trips and on my cross-country move, and in mid-October, it came with me to my three weeks in residence at The Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna Beach, Florida. I made a card for every day during that four month period, and once I got here, I realized why I’d been writing them in the first place.

A few days into the residency, I spread all of the cards out on my desk and just looked. I picked a couple to type out and build on, and then started transcribing the interesting ones in chronological order. I had expected to mine them for material, but when I started feeling distracted after typing up the first few, I realized that the writing itself, in this case, was second to the act of writing. Plenty of the cards are interesting to me, but most of all, they got me into a regular writing groove again. They helped me remember what it feels like to take note of small moments without worrying about being perfect. They helped me be prepared for my first residency, because when I got here, I didn’t need prompting, and I didn’t need to rely solely on old material: I was ready, I was full of ideas, and I knew where I wanted to go.

I haven’t added a card to the box since my first day in New Smyrna Beach, and right now, an hour before I leave the ACA, it is resting inside a packed bag, ready to head back to North Carolina with me. What I have done, though, is write new poems I hadn’t yet imagined I’d write, experimented with new forms, and trusted my writing enough to follow it into places I would never go alone. I’ve spent three weeks in amazing company, learning from the writers around me and gleaning what I can from their own creative lives. Soon I’ll write about my time at the residency and share new pieces, but for now, it’s back on the road, back to dishes and laundry and grad school applications, and back to making time and space every day to write.

The Body Connected

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2 responses to “Muscle Memory: Daily Practice

  1. I loved reading about your journey. What a wonderful idea. Something I’ve done (but not enough) is use my phone’s voice recorder to record random thoughts as I’m driving so I can use it later for writing purposes. However, I am a tactile person so I love your idea of holding cards and spreading them out. Thanks for sharing.

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