Achieving a Balance With Your Writing

Picture of Monica Berlin

Author: Monica Berlin

Describe your current writing routine, if you have one. Do you support the belief that a person should write every day, regardless of how motivated (s)he feels, or do you prefer writing only when you’re feeling inspired?

I am not, nor have I ever been, a prolific writer. Rather, I always like words to steep, to settle long before I even open a notebook to scribble them down or turn to the computer to type them. Not since my undergraduate years have I written every day—and maybe even then I didn’t—and although I urge my students to find a habit of work that suits them, I wonder if that notion of having to do something every day ends up being a kind of paralysis for some of us. As with most things, now, I’ve come to believe strongly in fluidity, in the ways something that works one day might stop working the next. We adjust. It’s part of living, right? Sure, sometimes I wish I could get up every morning and write for two hours before the rest of the day begins, and then I realize if I want it badly enough, then I’ll get up and write. I rarely do. Instead, I write when I can, where I can, as it happens. I don’t wait for inspiration, no, but I don’t rely on a routine at all—which I guess is its own routine, isn’t it? Mostly, I want to want to write, and while it is a significant part of my job, I don’t want to ever feel like I’m dragging myself to the page, just as I don’t want to feel like I’m dragging myself into the classroom. Of course, when I hear about others who have trained themselves to develop firm, enviable writing habits, I am filled with doubt. Of course, I have thought the same things that many writers think: Oh, if I only had a well-lit space, a solid desk, a finely bound notebook, a handsome pen, a better computer, a wall of books, an open window on which to look out between sentences…I would write every minute of every day, or at least I would write every day. How lucky I now am to possess most of those things, some in multiples, but they don’t make me write or help in any significant way. Instead, I rely on a somewhat cluttered, fast-pace day, a deadline I’m ignoring, a cup of coffee, and five minutes spent alone where I can find some quiet and suddenly there’s a phrase I can start to shape. I’ve learned to recognize value to my slowness, my want to linger as long as I can over a poem, over a line or sentence. I’ve also learned to overlook any preciousness about that slowness—if there’s no poem at the end of a week, just a few broken lines, there’s no poem and that’s nothing to celebrate—so that I can finish what I’ve started. But on days when I’m just inching along, or veering away from the page, I’ve also learned to recognize that it’s all cyclical, that the days I’m not writing become days spent in the process of collecting or days when other parts of my life are more pressing, and that’s okay too. Undoubtedly, the days I’m writing well are often good days, but I’ve found no identifiable pattern to what makes for that kind of day—or stretch of days.

How has your writing routine changed since you were younger? Did you have a routine when you first began writing, or was it something you developed later on?

As I said, my process has always been fluid. For example, for about five years I commuted a hundred miles a day on fairly straight, uncongested interstate, and there I learned to work on revisions in the car—I’d record the most recent draft of the poem the night before and while driving I’d play it over and over, making notes into a tape recorder or on post-its that I’d stick to my dashboard. I learned the poems by heart then, and knew if I couldn’t remember a line, it wasn’t working. I loved those years, making poems that way. I loved what I learned about line and music on those roads. After my son was born, I kept drafting without paper for a long stretch. I’d work a poem over in my head until it stuck, until I knew it by heart—a product of the earliest months of his life, when my arms were never empty—before I moved to the computer, at which time only a small amount of drafting would happen on the page.

Now I’ve returned to writing on the computer, although what I learned from the years of revision while driving or composing while rocking a baby to sleep still holds on. I find I worry less, certainly. Worry less about making the perfect line, or a poem with all perfect lines. Worry less about getting it right every single time. Worry less over the days when I’m literally not putting words onto paper. It’s a relief, somehow, and all that has freed me to be more productive. It still feels right to roll a line around in my mouth for a while, inverting syntax, tightening the cadence, taking care to render it as a vocalized unit as much as a visual one. Maybe because for almost a decade I literally never saw those early drafts, they were never really to me real, present, actual objects in the world, because they only existed in the space of my head, I could focus on what mattered more to me—making them. Now, too, I also find myself worrying the language less when it finally gets to the page. Maybe when I finally do get to the computer, there’s a kind of delayed urgency and the writing works itself out fairly quickly once it belongs there. But before that, before the page, there’s this secretive way I’ve started to move through the world: a line or a sentence or an image stretching itself out for me as I do the other things I have to do every day.

What elements — environmental and psychic — must be in place for you to have a successful writing session? What environmental factors do not affect your ability to write?

I’m not sure I require environmental or psychic elements to be in place when I write. Sure, I like having coffee nearby. Sometimes a little chocolate or some small orange fruit will serve as a nice break when I’m trying to work something out. I like it to be quiet, but not too quiet. I like to have somewhere to put my feet—though that sounds silly, doesn’t it. But I don’t require any of this. I like to know there’s an outside, you know, whatever that world bears down on us—weather, the news of the day, people passing by an open window, the slow moaning freight train aching its way through town. I guess I write better at night, after most of the day is put away, when I’m not caught in an immediate and sudden dread about a meeting or thinking about the thing I have to do next. But, again, I’m not precious about process, which includes what I need or don’t need to write, and I worry sometimes we get so hung up on the things we think we require that we actually distract ourselves from the real thing—making something. So, yeah, as long as I have something to write with—I prefer my computer but can write long hand—or a cleared away enough space that I can remember what I am working on in my head, and so long as I have fifteen minutes or five hours, and so long as I have something to write, the rest doesn’t matter as much to me. I’m pretty adaptable.

How do you balance your writing routine with other occupational/ avocational duties?

Yeah, here’s the rub, hm. In earlier years of my teaching life, I’ll admit that I sometimes struggled to sustain the kind of energy that writing demands, particularly when I began teaching more writing classes, which is the majority of my course load and has been for about a decade, and often I found myself feeling pulled by the contradiction of it all: teaching writing makes me want to write, but the demands of teaching writing leave little creative or intellectual room for writing. But isn’t that the burden we all face on one level or another? For me, teaching makes me want to do my own work all the more because I’m so engaged with my students and with the texts at hand, with our shared and private subject matter, but the demands of teaching are sometimes so great that my own work must wait, be shelved, until there is time and space to consider it all. Very early on in my teaching, I always wrote with my students. If they had something due, so did I. If we worked an exercise in class, I scribbled with them. Then, for a while, I’d purposefully not write when they did—using that time to stare out the window, to catch my breath. Now I’m back to working alongside them, more or less. If they have to write a chapbook of poems in a trimester, well so should I. I can’t expect them to adhere to my deadlines if I myself can’t, and mostly that’s productive for me. Obviously, those deadlines are made up and if I have to set aside my own writing because of other pressures on my time—other demands of my job, for example, I do so without guilt or frustration.

It is a luxury, after all, this writing thing. A privilege. Which is something I try to remind myself more and more, especially because the more difficult juggle has consistently been between my work/writing life and my family life, and negotiating that has always been more of a challenge because I never wanted to say to my little boy, Just a minute, I’m working. I never want him to find a closed door to the office. But I also want him to know how important my work is to me, and that it’s an essential part of who I am in the world. So, the other thing I learned to do the last few years was to set aside one day each week when I don’t answer email and I don’t go into the office, but instead, I turn my attention to my own projects—and that’s always at a time when he’s busy with his own young life. It helps, too, that my students seem to be receptive to this, or at least understanding, and when I say, No, I’m sorry, I’m working at my studio on Wednesday, they never push against that. Sometimes, too, when I’m having a good writing stretch, I’ll invite them to come write with me. We don’t talk. We don’t have class. I’m not their teacher in that moment. We’re just writing companions. I brew a pot of coffee. We nod at each other when they come in. And their being there reminds me even more why I’m there, what I’m doing, and their presence often makes a good writing day an even better one.

Finally, what advice might you offer to young writers about the development of a writing routine?

Because I’m one to start things—open files on the computer, write for a day or two before I move on to something else or lose interest—and then, soon after, forget about them for months, sometimes years, when I rediscover this work I’m regularly surprised and excited. Like storing ideas in the bank, I am never at a loss for subject matter. It is in such a manner that a lot of my work is generated. Form, too, is something I turn to when I’m trying to turn a corner or write my way into something new. When I’ve finished something and find myself in a lull between projects, I’ll give myself some kind of forced structure—the sonnet, for example, has been a true gift to me in this way in so much as when I think I’m not writing well, I say to myself, My god, you can make fourteen lines. You can at least do that, you can at least make something that might someday resemble something that could be a sonnet, and then I do. I guess the other thing is that you get to the point sometimes where you can let yourself acknowledge that you may have better learned over time how to make what you are making. You can trust yourself more, trust the work more. And in doing so, you can also tell yourself that the next thing you write will certainly be better than the last poem you made, and then it is. Part of that trust overshadows, for me, the necessity for a defined routine—at least these days, although I’m more than willing to be persuaded that that too can change, can adapt or adjust.