On learning to love the work

I’ve fallen in love with my work again. Deeply. In a way I haven’t experienced since finishing my MFA eight years ago. I long for it when I’m at work, or driving, or doing something that takes up most of my mental capacity. I’m always thinking about it, pining for it, itching for the chance to do it again. I crave the ritual of it, the way my good pen feels in my hand. The softness of new pages. The worn strength of my notebooks, almost all of them the same now, stacked and ordered like armies on my writing desk. I love the comfort of a cup of tea as I write, the steam wafting off the mug. I like a small, cozy glass of whisky that burns the tongue, the sweet followed by the burn.

I am learning more about how I work. I need to work slow. I need time and space, and the physical must mirror the mental. I need quiet. I need all of these things: notes in my iPhone and on my laptop and in my notebooks. I need to work by hand, with pen on paper. I need to work by typing. I need to write every single day, for at least 15 minutes, even if I am not working on a longer project or an essay or “the book.” I must write.

Those 15-minute blocks have turned into experiments. I do not use that time for loose journaling or stream-of-consciousness writing. I use it for playing with words, for conducting experiments, for creating one clear, shimmering image. And I don’t care if I fail, because success is not the point. Muscle memory is. Mental memory. The process is the point.

The “experiments” were not my own idea. In college, one of my favorite and most influential professors assigned us “experiments.” It could be, write a story three different ways. Write a scene from three different points of view. Focus entirely on different senses, write it one of five ways. This practice always yielded such interesting results, and yet I still turned away after graduating. Entering my MFA, I shifted my focus to quantity. The goal was pages. Pages and pages for my thesis. If you’re looking for a quick way to kill joy, make it all about quantity. And then, I forgot about the experiments after that for several years.

I have always been a copious note-taker, a compulsive scribbler. But rarely have I revisited my notebooks. For some reason I am always afraid of what I might find, afraid of younger, past selves. But I need to revisit. That’s the way my mind works: as if it knows something I do not, and its revelation is contingent upon my return to it.

The more I learn about how I work, the more I fall in love with the work. The more I appreciate the practice. The more time I spend, the deeper my relationship with the work. And it should be deep: this work is the expression of myself, and still I feel like I haven’t even scratched the surface. That’s not defeating — that’s liberating. That’s excitement. A reason to keep going. An outpouring of possibility.


For a long time, I’d ask myself: What else will I write about beyond this family trauma? Beyond my brother’s ruptured life? Beyond all of my own mistakes, many of them self-inflicted? 

That question was born out of a misconception, one that I carried with me through undergrad and grad school years, and for years after.

The misconception is that pain and trauma are unique and mysterious. Pain and trauma lend gravitas. Suffering is sexy. Or something like that. I have learned — years later than I would have liked to, perhaps — that that is not true. That the joy of being a writer can come from transforming grief and sadness into art, into something that connects with others. But it can also come from transforming the daily mundane into art, too. I can write about anything. The hard part is writing anything well, but it is a challenge I’m willing to take on.

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