Thursday, May 20, 2010

As Yet Untitled

Every May, when classes have finished and I have had at least a week to catch my breath, I set to the daunting task of de-cluttering. Never a slave to organization, I invariably find old journals, papers, letters, cards, and books I had forgotten I’d bought stuffed into the most unlikely nooks and crannies. An unfinished short story sleeps restlessly under some cassettes, mixes for various moods, made in my twenties. Pictures from a hiking trip yellow and curl under old cross-country rosters. Snapshots and snippets of different lives pasted together to construct one life.

Once, in a writing group, someone gave a prompt to “describe your life in one word.” I wrote, “periphery.” Yesterday, using two words to accomplish the same feat, I wrote “perpetually passé.” I often feel on the verge of something exciting, but I come to the party late. I’m surrounded by people who do exciting things: writers, artists, activists, ultra-marathoners. People with focus. And while I run, write, parent, play a little music, I’m forever distracted, and therefore projects remain unfinished, disappearing into drawers.

But this past January, I vowed to be more mindful, whatever the task: dishes, bathing children, gardening. To treat even the most mundane task as a creative act. During the school year, when hours of my time are spent commenting on freshman essays, the creative fluids are squeezed dry, and at the end of the day all I want to do is put my feet up and read Tolkien, or Mary Oliver, or nothing at all. But May has arrived once again, and I don’t want to let the summer slip by without feeling as though I’ve accomplished something: organized closets, ripe vegetables in the garden, meals from scratch. But, more than anything else, I want to write again. And I don’t even want to think about a finished project yet; I just want to know that I have spent a portion of each day putting words on paper, however banal.

Yesterday, going through drawers, I found a stack of papers from a class I took in grad school called “Problems in the Profession,” taught by one of my favorite professors, Philip Baruth (a sometimes commentator on NPR). On the front of my portfolio, he wrote, “You’re one of those people who seems to be already very much in the English profession, Tricia. . . . In brief, you present ample evidence that you can handle the world outside UVM. . . .. More than that, your work suggests to me that you’ll do very, very well in academia. . . .” After the initial surprise at this brief encounter with my former self, I had to chuckle. Even though I teach at a university, I couldn’t be farther from “academia,” at least in the sense that Professor Baruth intended. When I do have time to write, I’d much rather write fiction, or creative nonfiction, than do a Lacanian reading of Paradise Lost (though admittedly, when I finished reading Tolkien last winter, I immediately went to the library and checked out a book of critical essays on Lord of the Rings). And yet, there was something encouraging in this meeting with Grad Student Tricia, and I spent a few minutes having coffee with her, if only to get a sense of the energy and fervor with which I had once sat down to the computer, or to my journal, or to a table at Muddy Waters in Burlington with one of my fellow students.

Motherhood provides a convenient, and even legitimate, excuse for falling into a pattern of creative apathy—no, I don’t like that word. For languishing, for putting the writing self aside. And my friend Kathy, an accomplished teacher, writer, and mother, has convinced me that it’s okay to give ourselves permission not to complete a piece of fiction, or an essay, or an article, while school is in session. She has completed a draft of her novel each summer for the past few summers, and is currently shopping for an agent.

I like this method; it makes sense. But the danger, for me, lies not only in not writing, but in not staying awake. Once upon a time, I would go for a run, observe the exact position of the sun and the trees as I passed, and reach for my journal the moment I had finished the obligatory post-run glass of water. Now my tendency is to put the journal at the bottom of the priority list, and the memory of the sun and the trees shrivels, along with the words to describe them.

But that’s why I’m here, this morning, and why I’ll be here again tomorrow. And hopefully the day after that.