Monday, December 19, 2016

Jaimee Wriston Colbert's Perfect Writing Day

In the 63rd in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Jaimee Wriston Colbert, author of Wild Things (BkMk Press), lays out the ideal conditions.

The perfect writing day...

...would not be today, with the fall semester just ended and the grading piled up, and the student requests for recommendation letters pouring in, graduate novels to read over break. Break? What break? The holidays? As a fiction writing professor you shrink away from the mistletoe, the yuletide greetings, please don’t buy me anything because I have no time to return the kindness. You remind yourself over and over that this was the job you dreamed of, worked half a lifetime to get. Creative Writing Professor! Which is true, and you are glad for it. Tell yourself this. Teaching is inspiration.

But the perfect writing day cannot happen while thus-employed. You dream of summer…waking up to the good rich scent of coffee after a refreshing night’s sleep with gorgeous dreams, or maybe no dreams, just that lovely feeling of immersive sleeeeepppp. The coffee magically appears at your bedside, along with some sort of delicious breakfast; maybe these are transported to you on a drone, a hovercraft of some sort, humming up the stairs—Meet George Jenson!—because in your perfect writing day nobody else is at home. Repeat—family members, spouse, poof! All have disappeared into their own lives outside your house; only the cats may remain.
Coffee? Give me a break

Well-nourished and caffeinated you head to your den, your desk beside the window where outside is the long green stretch of your yard leading down to the river; and how about we part that curtain of trees for the day so you can actually see the river, water is inspiration. Now let the ocean appear in your memories of it, growing up on Kailua beach, words pouring forth onto the page forming themselves into poignant, inspired stories. Except you’ve been working on a novel—so scratch the stories for now, let the hovercraft bear them to some magical place where all your small creative moments are translated into images and ideas of vast humanitarian importance, saved for you when next you need such gravitas.

The novel! On your perfect writing day you would not waste these hours in the usual panic, at how can you possibly write a novel in just three short months, until the academic year begins again. You do it, brilliantly, and when you grow tired the hovercraft serves you tea, with an avocado, kale and salmon salad (wild salmon flown in fresh from Alaska!), and a glass of chilled chardonnay. Wine is inspiration. Outside your window, fox pups are playing and birds are singing and the neighbor’s dogs, with their incessant barking are sucked back into their house—safely, you are an animal lover after all, even if these dogs drive you crazy—and the other neighbors’ power tools, leaf blowers, lawnmowers, all of those whiny suburban implements run out of electricity, gas, and the cars, motorcycles, semis roaring down the highway, helicopters beating overhead, all noises and distractions disappear as you step into the world of your novel for six gorgeous hours that belong only to you. Silence is inspiration.

Okay, maybe you are dreaming, after all, your need for silence, your yearning for it: how to be alone with your characters in a world of constant commotion? So what is the perfect writing day? We covet retreats where what we do is validated by the care others give us while we do it, our writing. But let’s face it, that’s the rarefied experience, highly competitive and mostly exclusive. For many of us, it’s while serving pie in a diner, pouring coffee, rotating tires, changing the oil, schlepping kids to this and that, mopping up their messes—and suddenly language is alive within us. Maybe the perfect writing day is in our heads, biking on a trail, taking out the garbage, waiting at a red light and we listen to our characters tell us their lives.

In the Dec. 9 edition of The New York Times, Nia Vardalos, who is acting in a show based on Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things, talks about how back when Strayed was a struggling writer, she “walked around for weeks, asking friends, should I do it? Should I not do it?” Ultimately, of course, she did it. Perhaps the perfect writing day is when we make that decision above all else: Yes, despite all of life’s challenges, disappointments, and distractions, the perpetual noise of being alive, I will hold this one thing, precious! Inspiration is doing it.