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Homework 'til the Day You Die
The thing about writing
The thing about writing is you’re never over it. Never finished. Never satisfied.
The thing about writing is that it’s a lifelong pursuit. You’re always in search of the perfect word, sentence, paragraph, page, poem, manuscript, and then the next idea and the one after that.
A writer’s brain scavenges every situation for a delicious morsel of inspiration. A scene, a saying, a sentiment. Everything is fodder for the muse.
We love writing. We hate it. We can’t stop. We can’t get started. We fear the blank page. We crave it. We wish it were over. We can’t wait to begin.
I juggle multiple writing balls all the time. Right now I have five balls in the air:
1. This blog (in which I usually drop half-polished first or second drafts)
2. The writing work I get paid for (fully-polished 10-round gems)
3. A memoir in progress since November of 2019 (bones on a skeleton waiting for flesh)
4. The odd poem or two (often springing from a perfect phrase that drops, fully formed, into my mind in the middle of the night).
5. An essay that will be included in a forthcoming anthology (finishing the final polish now)
I’m considering adding a sixth ball by submitting another essay or two for publication. But trying to get published involves a whole new basket of balls to juggle: seeking out publications, familiarizing oneself with the submission guidelines (and fees), fielding rejections (always), sending the piece out again, again, again.
It has been this way for much of my life: first the paid writing gigs, and then the writing that is purely for myself, and then the public-facing, unpaid writing like this blog. (I have penned multiple iterations of a blog since the late 1990s when “blog” became a noun, and then a verb. Writing can be incredibly lonely, and even though blogging demands multiple hours of devotion for zero monetary payoff, the connection with the outside world—finding new readers, feeling seen—makes it all worthwhile.)
The point is, since I first took up a pen sometime in my teenage years and began writing something other than actual homework, I have never been able to lay the pen back down. There is always something more to write.
The exact quote varies as much as its attribution:
“Being a writer is like having homework every night for the rest of your life.”
“Writing is hard work: it is like doing homework for the rest of your life.” -John Lutz
“Being a writer means having a homework assignment due for the rest of your life.”
-Hank Moody (David Duchovny) in Californication
Whoever said it first or best, the point remains same. If you take writing seriously, then you are always writing. Not only because you always have another story to tell, but also because you’re constantly trying to sharpen your prose.
I look back at things I wrote 20 years ago, 10 months ago even, and cringe. Sure, it goes the other way too—sometimes I read a piece and think, “Good job, me!” But more often than not I’m unsatisfied, and so the quest continues.
This December, I have decided to challenge myself a bit more than usual by joining the 30/30 Project with Tupelo Press. Tupelo is a non-profit literary press “devoted to discovering and publishing works of poetry, literary fiction, and creative nonfiction by emerging and established writers.”
I’ve been a fan of the press for years—they publish really beautiful books from a diverse set of voices—so I was happy to rise to the 30/30 challenge. The idea is this: several poets volunteer to write one poem a day for 30 days. Poets submit a first draft (which is a very vulnerable experience!) and Tupelo publishes it. The next day, a new poem, and so on each day for a month.
In the process, each poet fundraises for Tupelo Press. It’s kind of like running a marathon and asking your friends and family to pitch in a few bucks to support a good cause. Except this marathon is fingers on a keyboard instead of feet on a street. There are seven other poets writing this marathon with me, none of whom I’ve met or read before.
If you want to read the Tupelo Press 30/30 Project Poems for December, here they are. The page is refreshed with eight new poems every morning (US time), so bookmark it and keep coming back.
If you’d like to donate to the cause of a non-profit literary press, here is my fundraising page. You’re under no obligation to do so, of course, but I will say that December is a great time to give gifts to good causes!
11 days/poems in with 19 to go, I’m very much enjoying this writing marathon. When I know I have to write a poem every day, I see the world differently. I’m mining my life for perfect lines in a much more heightened way than usual. The colors seem sharper, the sound of the rain more specific—not a patter but a salvo. I’m not sure I could keep up this sustained state of awareness forever, but 30 days isn’t too big of an ask.
Some of the poems I’ve written so far are decent. Some are meh. But a few of them have a special sort of shine and I know I’ll come back to polish them to a higher gloss.
Like this one: my entry for December 10, inspired by a recent visit (my third) to Capela dos Ossos in Igreja de São Francisco in Évora. There is a sonnet on display there, written by António Ascensão Teles in the 1800s, which directly informed some of my lines. The title of the poem is the words inscribed above the doorway to the chapel:
Nos ossos que aqui estamos pelos vossos esperamos*
(We bones are here, waiting for yours)
The bones don’t rush.
They have acquired patience
watching centuries of travelers
hurry past. The living spare only a glance
a caricature of contemplation
lit and posed for mass consumption.
But the bones know there is no
greater concern than this silence.
The weight of the air a comfort.
The diamonds of dust in the sunlight.
Another day brand new and yet somehow
the same as all the ones before. Ponder
the living. How many have passed through
and then passed on all headed eventually
to the very same end. This the bones know
stacked femur to ulna like yule logs
with no thought for which belongs where
and to whom. Death is an unselfish companion
and this gives the living pause white knuckling
their spectacles testicles wallet and watch
still thinking “mine.”
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I’ll leave you with this exhortation from Ernest Hemingway, which always makes me laugh and nod my head:
Copyright © 2022 LaDonna Witmer