My daily writing practice changed dramatically four years ago in response to the circumstances of writing a dissertation and having a child. Both of these new activities provoked profound shifts in my relationship to time—its structure, its measure, and its meaning. They also had an interesting relation to one another. My daily life as a graduate student teaching one undergraduate course per semester was relatively unstructured—that is, open to be structured how I desired. Daily life as a new parent, by contrast, was entirely structured around the immediate and regular needs of my child—I had very little choice in the matter. Such that the latter’s structure imposed itself on the former’s structurelessness, producing for the first time in my life a regular writing day. If I wanted to write, I had to be really intentional about when, where, and how. Taking advice from my advisor, I initiated a new habit that became the practice that produced a dissertation, a series of chapbook manuscripts (two of which have made it out into the world) and pages of yet-tbd-what-it-is writing. The commitment was to write for thirty minutes every day first thing in the morning. After thirty minutes, I close the computer, go eat breakfast, take a shower, and get on with the day—which sometimes involves more writing, sometimes not. This practice began for the purpose of completing the dissertation, but then extended to creative writing as well.
I always have two running documents that I restart after they’ve been culled into something more finished—e.g., “daily writing aug 25-” and “daily poetry april 29-.” But these two documents tend to bleed into one another. That first thirty minutes of writing is stream of consciousness—whatever is on my mind at the moment regarding the things I’ve been reading, thinking about, wondering, and feeling. My dissertation is on late twentieth-century U.S. poetry—poetry written during the decades of my childhood, occasioning many connections between scholarly study and personal accounting. Writing about literature that I love means opening myself to meet it, write with it, and write myself. Thoughts about parenting resonate with feelings about poetry; observations of U.S. literary culture in the 1980s echo the conversations I have with friends about writing; worlds collide in composition, feeling across the distance of generic and thematic categories that would separate them. When I am working on a scholarly or creative manuscript, I mine both documents. I go looking for something in one only to find that it is in the other. Sometimes what I thought was writing for a poem turns out to find a place in an article; other times what I thought were words for an academic argument end up in lines of a poem. I am dwelling on this aspect of my writing practice across genres because so much of my life as a writer up to this point had been bogged down by a pressure I felt to define myself and my practice as one thing—a poet, an essayist, a short story writer, a diarist, a scholar. I always thought that my inability to identify or be identified as one or another meant that I was merely failing at all of them. Now, I’m beginning to understand that there is a category called “my writing” that encompasses everything I make with words.
Thirty minutes a day every day produces a lot of words, and there’s a special satisfaction I feel watching the pages accumulate. When I used to write in hardbound journals, I’d love flipping through the completed pages, textured by my ballpoint pen—words, words, words. Peering down at the page count in the bottom ribbon of Word and scrolling through pages of Times New Roman font produces a similar sense of glee. Sometimes I open a daily writing document just to virtually hold it in my hands.
Mostly I write in my home office. The picture attached is slightly out of date—we’ve since installed a desktop computer that I share with my husband. When it’s his turn, I write at the dining table on my laptop. I can’t take a new picture of the desktop or the dining table because now there are renters in our house while we housesit for a professor who heads north every summer. This house, built in the 1890s, is a bit outside of town in the forest near a lake. It’s very green and quiet. Most days I work at the office desk where we’ve transplanted our computer, but sometimes I set up a small wooden table and red chair on the screened-in porch and write to the background of birdsong. When I’m too distracted by house chores to work at home, I go to Panera, where there’s free coffee refills all day and no one who works there cares how long you are there or how much money you spend or don’t spend, because it’s corporate. There are a number of regulars—we each have our favorite spots next to the scarce power outlets. A laptop running out of battery is like a pen running out of ink. Maybe it’s a compulsion, to generate so many words in spaces where they weren’t before, not knowing what they will add up to. For me, it comes back to a relation to time: A writing day is a form of movement, the production of relationships, communication and communion across various kinds of distances. My child structures my writing day in terms of the present moment of composition, but they also structure my relation to the past and future of writing—to imagine them reading this blog post in the future, what the past that is my present will mean to them. All generation is a form of time travel.
Adra Raine, author of Want-Catcher (The Operating System, 2018), recently completed her PhD in contemporary U.S. poetry at UNC-Chapel Hill, and is currently working on a new project titled Undissertating, which is or isn’t what it sounds like it might be. You can reach her on gmail at adra dot raine. She would love to hear from you!