I want to push against the idea that a writer is “productive” or that a writer “produces.” Our value as writers isn’t tied to how many words or pieces we write and especially not tied to how much we publish or the awards or fellowships or grants we win. Your biography is not your worth. My value as a person is in the relationships I make, the community I build, and the kindness I share. I’m more interested in living a life of poetry than I am in being a Poet. I thank my mentor, Jennifer Kwon Dobbs, for teaching this to me, and continuing to insist on it; my gratitude to my friend Éireann Lorsung for the same.
For me, few days contain sustained writing of more than an hour or two. Most days, what I do wouldn’t be considered writing by most people. For my friends who are parents, or sick, or caring for family, or working multiple jobs, or students, even fewer days contain creative writing at all, and yet they are still writers. I work only forty hours a week and don’t have children, so I manage to write a lot, as these things go. But it can also depend on what I’m writing, whether or not I like what I’m writing, or what season it is. I write best when it’s light outside, so April through October are my generative months. November through March is when I revise (if I can muster the energy for it) and send poems out (if I enjoy reading what I’ve written).
There is no typical writing day for me. I try not to be precious with my writing—I draft just as well by hand in a notebook as I do in the notes app on my phone. I write when there’s a bit of language or an image in my head that I keep turning over and when I have a spare five- or ten-minute to play with that language. Once every week or so I manage to set aside an evening or a Saturday to focus on writing. During those times, I try to have a goal: draft or revise a book review, revise a poem or two, go through the fragments I’ve collected and build on whatever jumps out.
I find it helpful to remember that language is tied to the breath. It’s easy to forget that language is inherently embodied, especially if your body isn’t interrogated on a regular basis: bodies that are white, cis, able, thin, mostly male. I have certain privileges that allow me to write in certain ways, but I reject the idea that the way I write is the only way to write. I can tell you about my writing day, but also that’s not useful to you.
Rather than thinking of myself as “producing” writing, I prefer to think of the process as “generative,” which feels tied to birth and growth and resembles the word “garden.” Bodies are inefficient, messy, and easily broken, which are bad features under capitalism. But those features of the body are good for writing: when we take our time, we’re more likely to notice, and when we’re noticing we’re outside of a production cycle and capable of doing our best growth (both personal and culturally). Sometimes, not making art can be a radical act.
Mostly, my writing looks like reading. I read a little every day. I read a lot in a year. I read a few poems before going to sleep, or a fantasy novel out loud with my partner while we cook or wash dishes, or sometimes a blessed evening on the couch with my dogs. I began keeping a book diary in 2013, so every book I finish reading I enter into my reading log. Title, author (and translator if applicable), publisher, year published, genre, page count, date finished. Sometimes I record who lent or recommended it to me. Finally, a page about how I liked the book.
The project I’m revising right now is a book-length poem about time and routine and the ways politics touch our lives directly and indirectly. I think it’s some of the best writing I’ve ever done. I wrote it mostly in the notes app on my phone, every day from April 1st through June 30th, 2017. At most I spent an hour drafting a section, but most sections took between five and fifteen minutes to write. I took a few days off to go camping with friends. A few days I wrote as many as two sections. I cut nearly a third of the sections I wrote. Each section begins the same: “every day I wake up & …” The poem spirals from there. The form was very generative. It felt a lot like living.
Timothy Otte is a poet and critic. Poems have appeared in or are forthcoming from Denver Quarterly, Sixth Finch, SAND Journal, Structo, and others. Reviews have appeared in the Poetry Project Newsletter, LitHub, Colorado Review, and elsewhere. Otte runs the Poetry Book Club at SubText Books in St. Paul, MN, works at Coffee House Press, and keeps a home on the internet: www.timothyotte.com.