yoga mat with mouse traps: This writing practice

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dining room

Just a few hours ago, I was heading toward the check-out at Target, a yoga mat under my arm and a red basket full of mouse traps. It seemed like an apt metaphor: how disjointed life has felt for a very long time. I crave the zen, but in reality I skitter about all day long putting out fires. My brain swings wildly between the two, sometimes at a frenetic pace, sometimes much more slowly. Either way, you can usually find me somewhere between an exhale and a murderous rampage.

* * *

This goes for writing, exercise, housework and entertainment, too. I’m either a prolific writer or I have clean house. I’m either Betty Crocker or Joan Benoit. Over time, I imagine, I strike some kind of strange balance, but it makes it really difficult to know who I am. I have trouble seeing the “both-and.” I have trouble seeing the multitudes contained as part of a cohesive whole.

* * *

This fall, I’ve been patting myself on the back for squeezing reading and free writing into the small gaps of time I find in my day. Almost every day. Like my 30-minute lunch break at work. Like the 15 minutes I’m sitting in the car waiting for the boys to come out after a game. Like the 30 minutes between when I wake them up and then drive them to school.

The picture to the left is a sunrise from a couple weeks ago. I captured it from my writing desk during one of those brief sessions… attempting to turn an old free write into the first draft of a poem. And the picture below is from an hour or so I found to spend at the coffee shop. From September through early November, my son’s hockey practices were at a rink with a Starbucks nearby. I learned to use the time to do a little reading and finish a couple free writes longhand.

Meanwhile, of course, my house fell into disarray to the point of becoming a distraction.

* * *

Despite feeling a genuine urgency about sitting down to write, I recently re-watched the entire first season of Stranger Things AND binge watched all of season 2. I wrote ZERO new poems during this time and told myself it was because I didn’t have time.

And this weekend, I went to a party and cleaned the house. Cleaned for hours. The kind of cleaning in which you pull stuff out of boxes and shelves, in which you sort and shred 10 years of papers and files. Plus all the regular cleaning normal people just do as a matter of course. Pictured at the top of this post: my dining room. Typically, there would be coats on chairs, keys and a purse on table, stacks of books on the floor against the wall, backpacks underfoot, a couple pairs of shoes kicked off, dust bunny, dust bunny, dust bunny. All the rooms get like that. All of my spaces sit just across the line from “lived in” to “when was the last time anyone gave a damn?”


So, the downstairs part of the house is clean, and I am all caught up on Netflix. I have spent hours with the TV and the vacuum and, I’m sure, Twitter and Facebook. But finding time to write? Impossible.

Put it on the list of lies I tell myself.

* * *

But then that’s always been my writing practice. Feast or famine. Even though I have been giving “piece-meal” my best shot (grabbing little bits of time here and there), it just doesn’t feel right. I am an either/or writer: either I write or I am in the world. Either I move with the breath on the mat and think about an end to all suffering. Or I exterminate the rodents.

There is no middle ground.

* * *

My mother used to joke that she didn’t see dirt. I am very much that same way. However, once I see it, I need to deal with it… and until I do I beat myself up about having neglected it.

I do the same with writing. The competing forces of full-time work and parenting sometimes (often) win. At times, I am in that domestic groove and barely notice what’s missing. But once I do, I’m hard on myself: are you serious about writing or not?

* * *

There’s no clean answer to any of this. A good therapist (and I used to have one) would say that the problem is black and white thinking. I know it intellectually, but it’s tricky in practice.

And then, of course, part of me says maybe the extremes of the pendulum aren’t problems at all. It’s called “immersion,” and maybe — whether it’s writing or cleaning or family/relationships —  it’s just what works for me. I need to sink in and withdraw again, sink in and withdraw. When it comes to writing, that’s when it feels most satisfying: when I’ve given it half my day, when I’ve stayed up all night with a poem.

* * *

So if I know that’s what works for me, why do I fight so hard against it? I am simply stuck on this idea that there must be a better way, that I’d be more productive “if only.”

What’s the biggest sticking point between you and your writing practice?


  1. “What’s the biggest sticking point between you and your writing practice?” Overcoming an ever-present sense of futility and despair for long enough to polish a draft or pull together a collection.

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