Reflecting on the first semester of my MFA program at UVA, I’m struck by how lovely, how dreamy it’s been. I had various worries about beginning the program, but none of them ended up being confirmed: except one, maybe, just a little bit.
I worried that it would be harder to write once writing (good, successful) poems became my main responsibility. This is both true and not true: on the one hand, writing is easier because I’m doing it more often, and because it’s hard not to feel inspired when I’m surrounded by such astonishingly talented people. Most of the time, writing is what I want to do.
On the other hand, the point of an MFA program is that you must write regularly, even if inspiration doesn’t arrive. You have to hand work in to a group of people you earnestly want to impress, and are not certain of impressing. I’m not always in the mood. It is different to have to do something, and that fact sometimes triggers an impulse to procrastinate. While I used to put off doing other things by writing, now I sometimes put off writing by doing other things.
To write when I don’t feel like it, I’ve tried to take advantage of my impulse to procrastinate by developing a ridiculous system of ruses to trick myself into being productive. If you’re like me, I wonder if these ideas could help you. If you’re one of those people who can naturally sit down and work for hours under any circumstances—congratulations! This list might seem more silly than informative.
1. Okay, this strategy can have negative consequences, but it usually works for me: I start writing at a point when doing so might make me late for something. (Not something important, ideally.) If I keep saying to myself, “okay, that’s enough, I should really get up now and head to the grocery store,” I will probably keep writing until it no longer makes sense to go to the grocery store. It can be worthwhile to fall behind on something else if I ended up writing a poem.
2. Don’t laugh: 5-minute writing sessions! It’s absurdly short, but that’s the point. The beauty of 5-minute writing sessions is that I can always, always find time. And that—of course—I usually end up sitting for much longer. If I keep writing for hours: that’s fabulous. If I just stick to 5 minutes, there’s no reason to despair. It’s an investment in long-term momentum. The opposite method—forcing myself to sit down and stare at a blank page for 3 hours before really starting something five minutes before I have to stop (and then being late)—is just too depressing.
3. I keep two or three projects going at once, so I can toggle between them, putting one off by working on another. Not everyone is project oriented, but I like writing in several different “worlds.” If I’m feeling stuck on one project, I can have fun playing with a side project.
4. I sit down to write a poem having already decided that I will not turn it in for workshop. This can be liberating, and sometimes I end up liking it better than whatever I planned to turn in for workshop.
5. I keep a fairly full schedule. I think a lot of MFA programs take care of this with first year teaching requirements and other responsibilities, but first years at UVA have gobs of free time to write. That time is precious, but sometimes looking at a stretch of eight hours I’m supposed to spend writing can make me nervous, and I can end up squandering it anyway. (Where should I work? A café? I’ll get on the next trolley, right after I do these dishes and pack up my things. Oh, it’s closed, just like last week? I’ll go to the library. But now I’m hungry… etc.) I’ve chosen to take a Sanskrit class and tutor in the Writing Center. I love fulfilling both of these commitments, and having a place to be every day keeps me thinking about when I will write. And there’s nothing like memorizing vocabulary in a dead language to realize that I’d rather work on a poem.
6. I try to think vaguely about what I’m writing towards while I’m falling asleep: to visualize that world. Sometimes I’ll wake up with new ideas, though sometimes this just results in that vivid dream where you write something great, but can’t remember it when you wake up.
7. I seldom do this, because I usually go out with my cohort after workshop: but the post-workshop hours can be a great time to write. The intense focus required in workshop, and the lingering magic of hearing so much good poetry and thoughtful discussion, can be great sensations to hold on to and write from in the after-glow.
8. I try to keep a list of the ways I catch myself rationalizing my procrastination, and write down rebuttals that I can recite to myself when I need to. For instance: Self-care is important, but writing is more important than self-care. Getting enough sleep is important, but writing is more important than getting enough sleep. Cleaning the kitchen is important, but writing is more important than cleaning the kitchen. It’s a way to hold myself accountable without being punitive.
9. I’m not using this technique right now, because I love to read and write poetry at night—but when I was writing a philosophy thesis and had to make significantly daily progress over the course of a year, I would not allow myself to write after dinner. My partner helped to hold me accountable to that commitment. It was effective because I couldn’t continue to push back the window of time in which I imagined that I would finally be productive each day, and because I slept well that year.
10. I try to meditate or read poetry before I start writing. One of the difficult, strange things about being a poet is that as much as we can plan a direction before we start writing, and edit later, there is no other medium about which it is normal to say, “I hope this happens in my work.” It’s a dreamlike, mysterious process, and it always helps to get into a particular head-space before I try to make something happen. I don’t need to be in a certain mood, but it certainly helps, and there’s no excuse to sit around and wait for it to seize me The trick is not to procrastinate by endlessly cultivating of a certain frame of mind. It may be wonderful to take a long walk, but at the end of the day, taking a walk is not writing a poem.
I should note that these are the tricks I use in the everyday context, working towards having a sustainable, joyful writing practice in the long term, even when I don’t feel like doing it on a certain day. My goal here is to be gentle, since my natural tendency is to be overly harsh and angry with myself. Still, there are times when it makes sense to be stern, to give myself a harsh talk. But my guess is that most of us already know how to punish ourselves into working. It can be harder, and more rewarding, to trick myself into wanting to.