“What’s your daily writing routine?”
Before I answer the question, a word (or so) about the question itself. I realized the emotional weight of that question when an audience member posed it to me and my fellow panelists at a writer’s conference. At the time, I’d been obsessively participating in poem-or-page-or-something-a-day projects for years, and so I launched into an answer preaching the necessity of making something every single day, no matter how long it takes. I didn’t notice one of my fellow panelists fuming until she leaned into the microphone and said yes, that was all well and good, but that I was privileged enough to do that because I didn’t have a husband or children.
Her anger knocked the breath out of me. I didn’t know how to respond. Of course, she had no way of knowing that I didn’t have children because I couldn’t have children. For twenty-three years, I’d dealt with endometriosis, fibroids, polycystic ovarian syndrome, and a host of other so-called “female problems” that left me in constant, debilitating, and utterly isolating pain. Five months before the panel, I’d undergone a total hysterectomy in the hopes of reclaiming some kind of life. The surgery hadn’t gone well. It was clear that the life I’d hoped to claim was going to stay beyond my reach. At the same time, because the problems I dealt with related to the most private parts and processes of the female body, I felt as though I couldn’t talk about them – it’d take another year, in fact, before I was able to even say that I’d had a hysterectomy in public.
The only place where I felt like I had any kind of voice was on the page. The only thing over which I felt I had any kind of control was my work as a writer. And work had always been a coping mechanism for me, anyway – one of the few things that centered me so that I could handle the pain that became nearly impossible to handle.
At that conference, I’d been talking about the what I did, but not the why. My overly-prescriptive, rigid answer was fraught with a thousand kinds of meaning that, until my fellow panelist responded in anger, I’d never begun to face. Sadly, this also kept me the fact that her response was entirely justified and for reasons every bit as weighty and fraught as my own.
I wish that I’d been able to say all or at least some of that when I was on that panel, which is largely why I’m saying it now. I wish I would’ve listened more carefully to my fellow panelist. Her response was more than justified, as were her reasons for saying what she did. I wish I’d taken time to consider how difficult it must’ve been for her to find time for herself and how she must have felt, hearing me drone on. I wish I’d engaged in a conversation with her. I wish I’d apologized for not understanding the emotional weight of the question and of her response to my answer. Instead, once the panel was over, I found the ladies’ room, checked to make sure the rest of the stalls were empty, and cried.
That was five years ago. In the meantime, life and career changes and responsibilities have intervened. As for my daily writing routine today?
Reader, I don’t have one.
I do try to do something related to writing every day. Sometimes I do create a thing a day. Sometimes I create several. Sometimes I edit, or submit, or read submissions. Sometimes I read a handful of poems from a new journal or book. When I have the luxury of a lunch break, I’ll often write or revise in my office while I chomp my way through a salad. When I get home, I eat dinner and then sit down to my writing desk, even if it’s only for twenty or so minutes.
Sometimes, though, I am just exhausted, and I let myself be exhausted. I let myself realize that sometimes it’s important to let the well refill, to sit in silence, to let myself experience what I’m experiencing, even if that is tremendous physical pain. I just live my life and breath my breaths and move from one moment into the next. I know how strange it must sound, but allowing myself those slow, fallow times may be the best thing I’ve done for myself as a writer and as a person. Even if it’s just the ragged persistence of the human body, I learn something important that I bring with me when I return to the page.
Emma Bolden is the author of three full-length collections of poetry -- House Is An Enigma (forthcoming from Southeast Missouri State University Press), medi(t)ations (Noctuary Press, 2016) and Maleficae (GenPop Books) – and four chapbooks. She received a 2017 Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. A Barthelme Prize and Spoon River Poetry Review Editor’s Prize winner, her work has appeared in The Best American Poetry, The Best Small Fictions, and Poetry Daily as well as such journals as the Mississippi Review, The Rumpus, StoryQuarterly, Prairie Schooner, New Madrid, TriQuarterly, Conduit, the Indiana Review, Shenandoah, the Greensboro Review, Feminist Studies, Monkeybicycle, The Journal, The Pinch, and Guernica. She currently serves as Associate Editor-in-Chief for Tupelo Quarterly.