May 11, 2015 by Paula Reed Nancarrow
“Why did I write it down? In order to remember, of course, but exactly what was it I wanted to remember? How much of it actually happened? Did any of it? Why do I keep a notebook at all? It is easy to deceive oneself on all those scores. The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself. I suppose that it begins or does not begin in the cradle. Although I have felt compelled to write things down since I was five years old, I doubt that my daughter ever will, for she is a singularly blessed and accepting child, delighted with life exactly as life presents itself to her, unafraid to go to sleep and unafraid to wake up. Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.” Joan Didion, “On Keeping A Notebook.”
Sometimes I think I write too much.
That seems like an odd thing to say, given that one of my goals this year was to find more time for creative work. By this I mean work that gratifies my inner artist. While the work I do as a grant writer demands a lot of creativity, I don’t need to “find time” for it. My life is already arranged around the day job; it is very deadline-driven, and by default it absorbs my most productive hours.
Setting a goal for creative practice seemed a good way of being intentional about something I value. My target was an average of 20 hours a week.
This target reinforced the idea that I was taking this work seriously, even if it did not have the obvious extrinsic benefits my day job did: being useful in the marketplace, contributing to the social good, paying my bills. The writing would involve journal work, blogging, memoir and poetry. (I list these in increasing order of difficulty – at least for me – where craft is concerned.) Developing my skills as a performance storyteller was somehow supposed to fit into those 20 hours as well.
I have other core values in my life besides work and creativity.
Homemaking, relationships, self-care. I’ve long used a time and task manager in an effort to give all of these areas their due. It’s an approach I learned from Stephen Covey, and while I’ve not been entirely happy with some of the cultural assumptions about gender roles that wove their way through his books, I’ve never found a better way to organize my life around what is important to me.
I have hit my 20-hour target perhaps a half dozen times since the beginning of the year.
My average is closer to 16 hours a week. Even that has not been easy, because I don’t work well in the evenings; my mind is more geared toward taking in information than it is analyzing, reflecting, synthesizing. Moreover, when I’ve spent all day staring into a computer screen, it really isn’t very healthy to spend all evening doing the same.
Often I do not get very far beyond the journal writing and the blog post.
The work it takes to write memoir and poetry is solitary, reflective and slow. It is no respecter of 20-hour weekly targets.
Many writers I admire say that discipline and persistence is more important than innate talent. This is a great comfort to those of us who doubt our innate talent, but know we can work till we drop. But I am coming to believe there is something else that is more important than discipline, persistence or talent.
For me, mindfulness is at the heart of creative practice.
Mindfulness requires me to be present to what is. It requires me to pay attention. To eat when I am hungry, and sleep when I am tired.
Someone who is trying to be disciplined can easily rationalize neglecting this simple precept. I am doing so now.
Mindfulness requires me to do the laundry when the laundry needs to be done, if I want to wear clean clothes. To go to the grocery store and buy nutritious food, and to prepare that food before it spoils, if I am to take care of my health. To organize my kitchen cupboards when I no longer know what is in them.
I did all of these things this weekend. They were not part of my creative practice. But they support it. I also made time for calling my parents, for wishing my mother a Happy Mother’s Day, and for having dinner with my own children.
Last weekend a friend suggested a spontaneous drive in the country.
It was a beautiful day and I almost turned him down. Anyone who turns down a spontaneous drive in the country on a beautiful day does not deserve to write poetry. No matter how many hours she puts in.