First things first: get up. This can be harder than it sounds.
Second step: do something other than go lie down on the couch in the living room and turn on the tv. Note: this is much harder if you have once again slept all night on the couch. Second note: if you have a dog, this is much easier because you will get an immediate disapproving look.
Third thing: take care of the dog, who requires at least a ten minute walk to pee and poop. When you return, you must feed the dog and get him some clean water to replace the slimy puddle that is yesterday’s clean water.
Sometimes I eat breakfast and sometimes I don’t eat before working. I can’t see much difference in production either way.
In the absence of my normal coffeehouse routine, I ordered a six cup orange teapot from Amazon one day. When I got to my husband’s apartment, I found he only had some 8 oz coffee cups. I was microwaving water every half an hour. Ordinarily, at the coffeehouse, I order a pot or a 16 oz drink and sit for an hour or two and then order something else and then I’m done. So the teapot substitutes for that time now. I sit down for as long as it takes to drink an entire pot of tea. Generally, this takes me about two hours.
English or Irish Breakfast, two bags, some lemon and honey.
Then I sit in front of the computer and check in with my students on Courseweb, my colleagues on Microsoft Teams, and the rest of the world on email. (Social media I probably checked while I was walking the dog or while he was eating his kibble or in the gray areas between me getting out of bed and trying to resist the pull of the couch. I do have the phone close and on while I type this, incidentally, so I might be kidding myself about how much I’m checking it.)
This morning there’s nothing on Teams (thank you colleagues who are trying not to work on the weekends so we all get some kind of break!). On Courseweb there are still two Senior Seminar student poems I need to respond to, but I’m not going to do that immediately because they are both very complicated pieces. I’ve so far been only able to tackle a couple such pieces a day. Their poems have always been and still are complicated and ambitious, just as I hope they’ll be, so it’s been useful to have some time to really respond. I do feel the difference between writing by hand my comments and typing them out, however. The latter takes about twice as much time. I also note the difference between reading them on a screen versus reading them on a printed page; it’s easier for me to read any thing as a printed page than on a screen. I can see the beginning and ending of a printed page or set of pages in the way I can’t on a screen. I know what I’m getting into when I hold the thing in my hand. I don’t know when I have to scroll and scroll. I have to keep more notes to keep my reading and then my comments coherent.
So, let’s say that’s the first half-hour of the day. It often isn’t the end of work but just the noticing of what work there is to do today. Sometimes I make a little list to the side of the computer:
Check in with G about S
Comments on L and N’s poems for SSP
Tamara and Sarah
Check in on D and K…
If I start all this by 8, I’m usually done by 10, and I take a little break.
When people ask me why I work so much in a coffeehouse at least a fifteen minute drive from my house, my answer is always the same: to escape distractions, which for me are mostly in my house—distracted eating, video games, and napping. I can’t really do the last two in the coffeehouse and any eating I do has to be paid for, so I can actually concentrate on what I’m supposed to do. And the drive time is just enough of a threshold to keep me from getting up and wandering back home. The pleasant things a coffeehouse offers me that my house doesn’t are the freedom from feeling the need to clean and a constant buzz of white noise from other people’s conversations, which is a feeling of not being alone. I can choose to overhear conversations or not. I am sometimes thrown an interesting word or phrase from another table.
Here in the apartment, my husband usually working away on his computers in his bedroom, I have much to be grateful for but I’m having a difficulty getting anything new to start. And yet, I’ve already written about 800 words as of this sentence. But nothing that feels like it might be a poem or a story or something we might call literary. Just sentences that seem factual, that seem descriptive. If I were my own student, I’d tell myself to just write and not care so much, so I do try to do that as much as I can. I take my pictures of the landscape as I walk the dog. I occasionally work on a painting or drawing—something about the gestures in the visual arts feels easier, not fraught with having to “mean” something in the face of the news of the coronavirus or the corrupt and inept political leadership of the President. So I let myself pick up the charcoal and grind it against the white toothed paper I brought with me. Just lines, not even shapes.
After my mother’s death in 2013, I couldn’t imagine what I was going to write about for a bit, and I finally settled on just writing “lines” of poetry, usually 10 syllable lines. It could be about anything, I said, or nothing. I probably need to go back to that system. When I did that, I usually found that if I wrote for about 12 to 20 lines, something interesting would appear, out of the boredom of the mind or out of the deep delight of the language itself or maybe both I don’t know, and I’d have something to follow at last.
Here’s one of those poems from my new manuscript, The Things.
Lines Where Something Was Supposed To Be
I can feel where the nouns ought to be most days.
But there’s often now an odd coming-up-short
when I go to grab that thing that one needs when one
needs to open a door in a conversation and cannot
find its name. My fingers flipper the air where
I know something I know should be solid, sayable,
and simply isn’t. The door thing. The thing you turn.
The thing, you know, you can lock and unlock.
The thing, oh my god, you can jiggle, you can try.
Helpful, a friend will say, oh you mean —-,
and it will burst out of me with relief, the word,
the word, the word, I say over and over again,
like the name of a kidnapped child returned.
At least you knew it was lost, friends will say,
meaning I’m not that bad yet, I’m not one of those
whose language is really going, whose memory
is leaking away in some home full of strangers in white.
Not yet is what I hear, my hand on the knob. Not yet.
(originally published at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)