Writers Need to Decontextualize Themselves
My students sit in rows with their bags, books, water bottles, and snacks piled around them like moats. There is a prompt on the screen, and they feverishly scribble away, bursting forth a response during the ten-minute freewriting time that I schedule at the beginning of each class. There are no restrictions, I tell them. Write what comes to you. Don’t pause and think. For ten minutes, just write.
I write with them. I don’t use those ten minutes to take attendance or respond to emails or check Facebook or peruse Buzzfeed for spring-cleaning tips. I do as they do; I open my notebook, click a pen, and write. I don’t respond to the prompt, though. Instead, I flip through pages filled with my loopy handwriting and continue something I once started, or I begin a new essay, or I jot down a list of ideas, or I work through something that has me stuck.
Most of my early drafts begin as scrawled pages in a moleskin notebook during those ten minutes. Later, at home when I’ve had time to think and reflect, I transcribe those words into the computer and they become something. I often joke at book signing Q&As that I wrote my whole memoir that way, during those stolen minutes of class time once or twice a week.
That is, until this week.
I can’t do it. This week, I am a hypocrite. I am over-thinking, denouncing the drafting process, and wallowing in wishful thinking and self-pity.
Like most other writers, I am not “just” a writer. My memoir, Realizing River City (Tumbleweed Books) was published in February, so I had spent months navigating the unfamiliar terrain of author-initiated book promotion, cold-calling to schedule readings that might be poorly attended. It all came with a nagging fear that the only people who were reading my book were a few family members, some friends, a few Facebook connections from high school, and probably only half of all those people liked it. Maybe even less than half.
At the same time, I was facing a layoff from my full-time teaching job resulting from a campus closure and restructuring. To prepare for the financial hardship, I picked up extra classes at other campuses as an adjunct. In total, I was teaching up to ten college-level writing classes at once. My time was divided between book promotions, the occasional editing project thrown my way (how could I say no? I knew I would need the money), and reading hundreds upon hundreds of (sometimes awful) student essays.
I became a master of efficiency. I approached feedback and grading as a formulaic process. I found a rhythm and refused to break it for fear I would crack. Any classroom time reserved for students to work independently or in groups was time I used to glance at assignments, update the online gradebook, respond to an email from a student at another campus. And when they wrote, I wrote. Or intended to, anyway.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that the more time I spent with other people’s writing, the less time I spent on my own. It wasn’t simply a matter of time, either. Rather, I was so immersed in standardized writing that I lost the momentum to create art.
In other words, in order to write, I had to get away from writing.
Writers need to decontextualize ourselves from our professional non-writing lives. At first glance, this seems to go against everything we’ve been taught, right? It’s been engrained in us from the time we learn language that context is essential. It’s much easier to learn the difference between our nose and our toes than it is to identify a foreign country on a map because the everyday context creates comfort and familiarity, builds confidence, and we lock it into memory. Before long, the knowledge is second nature.
As writers, we surround ourselves with writing and writing-related jobs. However, teachers, mentors, editors, workshop leaders, copywriters, and content developers all run the risk of shutting off the valve to their creative energy by giving too much of themselves to others. While altruism is valiant and can be rewarding, if we don’t decontextualize, we fall into a pattern of procrastination, self-loathing, social comparison with our seemingly more successful writer friends, and creative evasion.
It’s important to not just make time for writing but to separate yourself from non-creative writing commitments. Then do something you love: go kayaking, clean out the crawl space, take a road trip and listen to podcasts, read a highly acclaimed book. Log off of your email, turn off your social media notifications, and write something new by hand. Be gentle with yourself, forgiving, and believe that every new word is an undeniable accomplishment.
Melissa Grunow is the author of Realizing River City: A Memoir (Tumbleweed Books, 2016). Her writing has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, River Teeth, New Plains Review, Blue Lyra Review, Temenos, and Yemassee, among many others.
An award-winning writer, Melissa was a semi-finalist for the 2015 DISQUIET International Literary Lisbon Writing Program award, a Pushcart Prize nominee for her essay “Home,” a two-time recipient of the Detroit Working Writers creative nonfiction prize, and is featured in Poets & Writers Directory of Writers.
Melissa holds a Bachelor of Science in English-creative writing and journalism from Central Michigan University, a Master of Arts in English from New Mexico State University, and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing with distinction from National University.