A month ago I agreed to write a short essay – 1200 to 1500 words, or about four pages – for a publication in one of my fields of study and work, a journal edited by a “since PhD school” friend and peer-mentor.
As typical in the pattern my brain requires for crafting a short essay, I noodled with ideas for a couple of weeks – reviewing posts, articles, images and stories in my life that seemed related to what I’d been tasked to consider: writing about the road I did take as a scholar, teacher, writer, colleague, mentor. That I took a higher education role at all made it clear – in my noodling – had everything to do with resilience and building a capacity for flourishing – storytelling at the heart of it all. But more on that after I submit the essay – and I’ve wrapped the edits my friendly editor will task me with before completion.
Writing and resilience have especially been in my brain the last two weeks when I’ve been drafting bits of ideas in those 15 minutes of a day I make room for writing on an idea that is important to me. Those regular writing chunks get me to that place where I am ready for the “long sit” – the two days for the actual final composing and revision my brain requires for crafting a short essay: one day of walking around [with] the writing, and one day of writing.
In cooking terms, those 15 minute bits and two full days are either analogous to bringing either a crockpot chili or cassoulet creation to the table. Both are great dishes, and determining which to cook depends on assessing the audience, purpose, task and context for the particular writing. Both are slow creations.
The first – crockpot cookery – requires some fluency with cooking – knowing basically ways that soups with bean, meats and veg can be brought together, a certain learning that comes with trying various recipes, with making emergency variations on something that’s worked before (when you’re facing eaters or barer or different pantries than you’ve known before).
There are aspects of resiliency at work when doing ordinary cooking or writing such as making a chili or a blog post: a positive capacity to cope with stress & catastrophe – hungry group you hadn’t expected to show up for supper and deadlines; knocking the salt cellar into the chili pot and the spinning wheel of death that signals a crash about to happen in the midst of saving the perfect opening line you just dashed off.
You can scoop out salt and add potatoes to the chili mix and be glad you haven’t yet salted the meat, peppers, onions, garlic mix just sauted. And you can change up a writing plan in light of deadlines you’d otherwise miss even as you swiftly use personal shorthand to capture the great sentence overall idea before the crash takes the file image away from your eyes.
The current writing task puts me in mind of building a cassoulet – the ordinariness of simmering up sumptuous white beans and the complexity of producing duck confit layered with ordinary goods to create a simple dish that excites all the senses.
Cassoulet creation came from processes of moderation and efficiency. Bits of meat saved from dishes across a week mixed with duck joints preserved in confit process, enriched by beans, tenderized by long cooking and enhanced with herbs.
About to make my own first real cassoulet (Jacques Pepin’s 30 minute version has been a practice ground), I’m mindful of Robert Boice speaking of writing and resilience:
The healthiest, most creative, most productive work comes with moderation – not, as tradition would have us believe, with pressure for high rates of work and ever more output. Efficiency practiced efficiently requires patience and tolerance, not greed and intensity.
I know how to make chili – okay, I generally know the basic practices, principles and possibilities of cooking – and even a striped down version of cassoulet, a bean stew, if you will. I’ve mucked up those basic recipes and writings enough to know how to take on the challenges of more complex dishes and essay themes. I have learned to maneuver – and I learned that burning a few dishes, as well as by rewriting some essay even after they had been published.
As I listen to people today remarking on my chronicling of the 48 hours ahead of the essay deadline – the days of my “long sit” – mostly what I say strikes those ears as procrastination.
The comments prompted me to stop to wonder if it is. Procrastination? Something else? I’ve had to make use of some of this day of “walking around [with] the writing” to come up with an understanding of my essay writing process that I could articulate for others – and for myself. In the end, as with much pondering I do about writing, I come back to Robert Boice:
Yup 1 – regular and constant practice with writing, and for new audiences, with new materials and insights, with varied audiences and competing deadlines.
Yup 2 – always a plan and ongoing planning as a piece emerges in the days with bits of writing and assorted bits of feedback from friends, other readings, my ongoing revision.
Yup 3 – those blocking points I know well are “needing” to read one more thing and to compose short essays on a single day; the first coming from “I can’t possibly be an expert on this so better find the one,” and the second from paying for college by writing for a newspaper and having only single shots of time for composing breaking stories or features on a deadline that mingled with class work.
Yup 4 – invented behaviors: 15 minutes across several of the days between learning of and meeting a deadline, alongside making room for a hunkering down to experience the “long sit” that includes first “walking around [with] the essay” then “composing” – which for me is drafting, reviewing, setting aside briefly, then revising. I create the time for the “long sit” – and I cherish that pair of days when I get to live in and with an idea, which I get to see in the world, living on beyond me.
Yup 5 – writing and cooking; writing and course creation; my essays and my grandmother’s letters and her grandmother’s poem; my teaching of writing and my ways of learning in the world with dyspraxia in the background; writing as a process and resilience as a way of being.
Yup 6 – that I write is a breaking of the rules: what could a working class female from southern Minnesota possibly have to say – about anything? in any interesting way? in the company of scholars? from the middest of an ordinary life.
Lots of rules I break, it turns out, thanks to resilience and storytelling. Like the stories of my great-great-grandmother the teacher who wrote poem, or of her husband who sometimes published a smalltown newspaper. Of my great great aunt who traveled for five years as an orator on Chautauqua circuits, or of her sister who published a newspaper in southwestern Minnesota for several decades. Of my great uncle who set linotype then learned compgraphic typesetting while also publishing short memoir pieces. Of my mother who wanted to be an English teacher with a father who denied her tuition funding and a culture that didn’t offer loans or scholarships to students with fathers who could pay the bill – but who did turn her skills of typing a bazillion words per minute from her own particular stenographic style into a professional career that required workplace writing from clear policy communication to complex contract writing.
All of these stories tell me three things:
- That I can write – as in I am allowed to write.
- That I am able to write because of learning from their words – in writing, in encouragement, in storytelling.
- That I have become a respected reader and editor of others’ writing because what I care most about is that writers are supported in crafting pieces that are as much about what they are called to write and readers are welcomed into reading.
But that’s the stuff of the essay I’ll sit down to write tomorrow as the work of today’s walking around with writing becomes tomorrow’s day of sorting the bits into a composition.