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Thinking in Prose

I’ve been dealing with a rather unfamiliar feeling lately: enthusiasm about my own writing.

If you keep up with this blog (and, really, it’s not that hard to do since I only post maybe four times a year) then you already know that I joined a writing group this past spring and the monthly meetings have been amazing for my writing mood. What I don’t think I’ve shared quite as widely is that for most of this year I’ve also been carpooling with my husband every Thursday and having him drop me off at a coffee shop near my office for 45 minutes of ‘compost writing’ before my work day begins – or that I’ve been taking writing classes and sucking up wisdom/inspiration everywhere I can, from conferences to in-person workshops to online platforms. If I had the money, I think I would be enrolled in some class or another at all times until the day I die, but alas that shit is rarely free.

The point of all this is not to brag about how good I’ve been about making time, but rather to give you a sense of the groundwork I’ve spent much of the year laying. Many of those Thursdays felt punishing – I’d sit in a comfy chair, looking around at the regular patrons with my pen poised, desperately trying to think of anything to write. Sometimes I’d barely get a paragraph out, describing something I saw or musing about something that wouldn’t be compelling to anyone but my own anxious mind; often the breakfast sandwich I’d treat myself to was the best part of the process. Every now and again I would feel a little creative spark, but inevitably I’d lose it during the work day and the page I’d so frantically handwritten while the old lady in the bucket hat to my right watched me would languish, never to be followed up on or turned into a completed piece.

The classes were better, but finite, with similarly little follow-up inspiration. I’d set out to write shorter pieces, but every month I wound up giving my writing group another chapter of my memoir instead – I couldn’t seem to finish anything and it drove me crazy! But I kept doing it: making the time when I could, writing whatever I could manage and trying to call it ‘compost’ instead of ‘shit.’ And just this month something amazing happened: I started finishing things.

I mean, I’d finished pieces before, of course, but it was an excruciating process. I’d stream-of-consciousness a bunch of words down on the page and then try to force them into a shape, and sometimes, after three or four major rewrites, I could find a structure – but more often than not I gave up and left it tangled and abandoned. Recently, though, something shifted in the way I was thinking about essays. Instead of just thinking vaguely ‘I should write about that!’ and then maybe jotting down notes or a scene on the fly only to have to do the structural work later, I started actually thinking in terms of narrative arc. It. Was. Wild.

I credit the shift mostly to the classes I’ve taken on personal essay and plotting, but it’s more than that. When I was taking poetry classes in college I would think in verse; when I lived in Italy I practiced sentences in Italian in my head all day. Immersion changes the way my mind works when it’s idle, and between classes, routine practice, and increased exposure to online literary magazines I have been drowning my brain in short-form narratives.

The result is nothing so concrete as producing a new essay every week or having one of my pitches/submissions be accepted (yet), but the difference in my attitude about my writing is marked. I can feel the potential running through my veins, flushing out all the self-doubt and pessimism that had been blocking my creative flow. I feel excited about the little spaces I’ve carved out of my life, the time I’ve squirreled away for writing. When I write something new, the finish line is often in sight from the beginning, as if I’m running on a track instead of hacking my way through overgrown forest. I’ve even completed an essay I think is solid enough to give to my group for our September meeting – the first break they’ve had from my memoir since February.

I was telling my friend about this last weekend, and as I was describing the change I laughed “is this what a practice feels like?” Because, honestly, writing has never felt like a practice to me. I’ve always made space for it when I have no other choice, either because I have an assignment due or a deadline from my editor or, more recently, I took a financial hit so I would have two days a week to focus on my writing, so I owe it to myself to show up. But now writing feels like something I’m doing all the time, like my writing mind is a machine that’s always on, always listening, even if it only wakes up when called (like Alexa).

It’s weird and wonderful and remarkable, and I’m hoping it sticks around for a while.

Published inThe Process

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