Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Painting the Kitchen and Why It's Like Writing: A Defense of Journaling

I came pretty close to a nervous breakdown over spring break. Maybe that's an overstatement, but it sure didn't feel like one at the time. I should add that, generally, I like to think of myself as a fairly stable kind of person who is able to handle life's ups and downs, but last Tuesday, I realized I was nearly half way through the only break in this incredibly busy semester, a semester that will bleed into my summer school courses without any time off, and I was still getting up at five to write and working all day and feeling just as stressed about the papers I needed to grade and the power point presentations I needed to write as I do on any other work day. My mood was foul and I was prone to lash out and say damaging things. Seeing this, my husband, being a sensible man, took me to Lowes and we bought two gallons of bright blue paint.

I spent the next day and a half working steadily on making our kitchen blue. It was good. Yes, I was working, but it was physical work, and it was something I have wanted to do for a while and haven't found time for. It was a chance to get out of my head for a little while--or, perhaps, in the millions of little whiles in between the thoughts that will bubble up when you aren't doggedly pursuing thought.

I'm a big believer in removing switch plate covers. It takes under a minute to take them off and painting easily goes that much faster because they're off. But I've painted a lot of rooms in a lot of houses and apartments, and I know that many people try to paint around the switch plates. No matter how painstaking their efforts, it never turns out well.

So I got to thinking, is there a writing equivalent to removing switch plate covers? That is, is there something writers can do that takes almost no effort to do but substantially improves the work?

The answer, for me at least, is the writing journal.

I recently gave myself a stern talking to about journal use. Like so many painters, I sometimes try to take what seems like a shortcut, jumping straight into the novel manuscript I'm finishing. Sometimes it works, but often I stall out. I do a lot of my writing at 5AM, even though my brain has not started to really function yet. It's a good time to be productive because the kids aren't up yet, but not so good if I can't get my mind going. If I start fresh, it might take me a half hour or more of staring at the screen to come up with an idea. Even then, ideas come in fits and starts, which means I'm barely started on it before the kids are staggering out of bed looking for breakfast and I begin asking myself why I woke up so early at all.

To prevent this, I've been trying to finish those morning writing sessions by stopping work on the novel earlier--even, and maybe especially, when I have a sense of where I'm going and it's hard to stop, and switch to writing notes for the next day in my journal. That way, I can start the next day at five with a plan. I start with direction and purpose. Almost always, my writing is better and more productive as a result.

Another benefit? Like the thoughts that bubbled up while I was painting and not trying to think about anything, thoughts can bubble up during the day when I'm not focused on the manuscript and trying to come up with them. Because the journal is so low stakes and because I rarely strive for a complete sentence, let alone a well crafted one, I keep jotting things in it all day. It's not an intimidating or impatient as the blinking cursor. And after all, if you start writing something at five in the morning, chances are your mind will circle back to it, and while I may not have the time to write those circling thoughts into the manuscript, I do have time to catch some of them and make notes in my trusty, beat-up comp book. Just like removing a switch plate, the relatively small time investment has a big pay off.


Other random painting thought:
"lying on the beach perpetrating a tan" is almost as amazing a verb use as "vexed to nightmare" or "slouches towards Bethlehem." Almost. There's still no one who can deploy a verb like Yeats.

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